North Carolina returned from a black abyss in the second half at Virginia Tech on Thursday night and played close to its potential in an 82-68 victory.
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels (16-3, 3-1 in the ACC) entered the game from its darkest point of this season. Florida State defeated UNC 90-57 on Saturday, embarrassing Carolina.
The Tar Heels played better but not well enough in the first half of Thursday's game, as the Hokies took a 39-34 halftime lead. The Tar Heels' true reemergence began on the final play of the first half, when John Henson rolled to the lane to get free on an in-bounds' lob play with nine-tenths of a second left.
Henson dunked the ball to cut the lead as the first half expired. UNC used the play to gain some important momentum heading to the dressing room.
In the second half, a Carolina team that has been seen only in glimpses throughout this season blew through the Hokies. The Tar Heels put together a 17-0 run to get the lead and discovered a new-found aggressiveness on both ends of the court.
"For us," Coach Roy Williams said, "it was totally, totally our defense in the second half. It was so much more active. John set the stage with his blocks, but we there on the catch. We didn't give the open ones. We didn't give them the open 3s. We blocked two of their 3s.
"We were just so much more active defensively. Then on the offensive end, we started playing North Carolina basketball, sharing the basketball, setting screens, getting movement, getting better spacing. And we started running the ball. We are supposed to be a running team, and Virginia Tech ran it 100 times better than we did in the first half."
Unfortunately, junior guard Dexter Strickland dropped to the court as he dribbled the ball on the break, wrenching in pain as he went down. He had to be helped to the bench.
"I have no idea what the extent of his injury is," Williams said.
They were key components in getting Carolina's game going by utilizing the missed shots it forced at Virginia Tech's goal and grabbing the rebounds to start fast breaks while holding the Hokies to one shot.
"The second timeout in the second half, I spent the whole time screaming at them to run," Williams said. "I think we get better opportunities then."
The greatest difference definitely came on the defensive end. UNC would not let Virginia Tech get any quality shots in the second half. When the Hokies (11-7, 0-4) did shoot the ball, more often than not they missed and UNC rebounded the ball to keep Virginia Tech from getting a second chance.
"We had a rebounding margin of 51-28," Williams said. "That was really big. For me it was our effort, our intensity and our activity the whole second half."
UNC's defensive effort showed in the wrecking of Virginia Tech's offense. The Hokies shot 50-percent (8-16) from 3-point range in the first half.
In the second half, Virginia Tech's overall field-goal percentage dropped to 33.3 percent, while the Hokies made 5-of-15 from 3-point range (33 percent as well).
"It was the kids who decided to go after it in the second half," Williams said.
Barnes led the Tar Heels with 27 points. He also had six rebounds, three steals, a blocked shot and made 10 of 12 free throws. Henson had a huge game with 16 points, 16 rebounds and a game-changing six blocks. His presence altered many more Hokie attempts.
Zeller scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
"I think we found out that we cannot be successful at any level playing the way we played last Saturday," Williams said. "We were rewarded for working extremely hard in practice the last couple of days. It carried over to the game.
"So I'm hoping they will understand that this is the way we will have to continue working."