CHAPEL HILL--- North Carolina got off to an atrocious start Saturday afternoon in its return to the Smith Center against Virginia Tech, falling into an early 12-0 hole before finding itself in a down-to-the-wire dogfight that went into overtime.
It was the type of start that would have gotten Carolina beaten against a lot of teams, especially on the road, but UNC had a loud crowd at the Smith Center behind them along with their own collective desire to get back in the game.
The resulting mixture was one of the more exciting finishes of the season for the Tar Heels, and a satisfying 72-60 triumph to kick off Super Bowl weekend in Chapel Hill.
"Needless to say, it wasn't very pretty, until the overtime part, but in the overtime part, it was pretty. We feel very fortunate," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards. "We didn't play nearly as well as we wanted to play but in the overtime, everything we did ended up being okay for us."
After falling behind by a dozen early---and a pre-media TV timeout called by Roy Williams in which he laid into his dazed players---UNC began chipping away at the Hokie advantage.
Although they never tied or took the lead in the first half, the Tar Heels successfully withered the Hokie lead down to one (27-26) following a Marcus Paige three pointer with just over two minutes left in the period.
The half ended with UNC trailing the Hokies 32-26, but UNC came out of the locker rooms fired up and determined to avoid a similar start in the second half.
"At half, they (Virginia Tech) had scored 11 points off our turnovers and we had scored five off theirs and it was a six-point game," said Williams. "We just had some silly turnovers and two or three terrible defensive possessions."
"We did a great job as a team of containing them and forcing them to take tough shots in the second half," added Dexter Strickland.
The Heels continued to pick away at the Hokies until finally after 27 minutes of play the Tar Heels tied it on a Reggie Bullock jumper.
UNC didn't actually lead in the game until less than 10 minutes left, which they briefly claimed a 47-46 advantage.
In a frantic final ten minutes of regulation, the teams exchanged ties and the lead multiple times.
Remarkably, Erick Green, Virginia Tech's leading scorer, went a stretch of 14 minutes without scoring late in the game, requiring several others in the Hokie lineup to keep them in it.
"In the second half, I thought we were much better defensively," said Williams. "James Michael McAdoo really got on the backboards and kept every miss. He was coming down with the ball on the defensive side and making shots on the other end."
With the score knotted up UNC took possession with 45 seconds left but Paige turned it over, giving Virginia Tech a chance to have the last shot of regulation.
Choosing not to call a timeout, Virginia Tech wound the clock down into the final five seconds before hoisting an ill-advised three pointer, which airballed and was grabbed out of the air by UNC's Jackson Simmons.
Only 1.6 seconds were left on the clock for UNC's inbounds pass following a timeout, and Simmons hurled it Hail Mary style towards Leslie McDonald, resulting in a tip out of bounds.
That left the smallest amount of time possible---one-tenth of a second---for Coach Williams to set up a miraculous finish.
After two different timeouts, one by each coach, Paige took the ball and lobbed it at a Virginia Tech player, ending regulation.
"To be honest, I felt lucky to be in the overtime," said Williams.
As they had done for most of the game the Tar Heels and Hokies traded buckets in the first two minutes of the overtime session, but then UNC grabbed a 62-58 advantage with under three minutes left following a basket by Paige.
Following a VT offensive foul Paige connected again, giving the Tar Heels an insurmountable 64-58 lead with under two minutes to go. Virginia Tech again failed to score, and the subsequent UNC defensive rebound put the Smith Center fans in celebration mode.
The Hokies started fouling and the Tar Heels took advantage of the free chances, as Paige made one of two to stretch the score to 65-58, and after McDonald scored in transition, Paige went back to the line and hit two more to make the count 69-60 in favor of UNC with just 1:02 to go, effectively ending VT's chances.
For Paige, who nearly gave the game away with a turnover in the final minute of regulation, his excellent overtime performance was as much a relief as a thrill.
"After that last defensive possession (of regulation) I was praying that he (the VT player) would miss it because that would have been devastating to me," Paige said.
"To have the chance to get the lead with 20 seconds left and throw the ball away is just a silly error on my part. I wanted to come out and make up for it in overtime."
The 12-point margin of victory was the biggest for North Carolina in an overtime game since that memorable regular season finale against Duke in Carmichael Auditorium in 1984, when former head coach Matt Doherty hit a buzzer-beater in regulation on Senior Day to force the extra time.
It was also the fewest points allowed by a UNC squad in an overtime victory since the 1980-1981 season, a year in which the Tar Heels advanced all the way to the NCAA championship game in Philadelphia.
"I told the team (after the game) this will be good for us, and I really believe that," said Williams.
"We can focus now for five minutes, and it really worked for us (in the OT session). We feel very lucky but we feel good because it's a 'W'. If they ever stop keeping score, then I won't care about who wins."
McAdoo led the way for Carolina with 22 points, while Paige was right behind him with 19 points. Only one other Tar Heel was in double figures, as Bullock tallied 11 points in the winning effort.
Four Virginia Tech players finished in double figures in scoring, led by 16 points from Green and 15 points from Jarell Eddie.
"It (this win) helps show how much room for improvement we have, but also how talented we can be when we do play together as a team," said McAdoo. "I think we really saw that in the second half."