Tar Heels intent on avoiding letdown at Virginia Tech
North Carolina has saved the worst for last.
Having already faced every other ACC opponent — including two games against N.C. State — the Tar Heels will face last-place Virginia Tech today at Cassell Coliseum (2:30 p.m., WRAL).
While No. 19 UNC (21-7, 11-4 ACC) has won 10 straight for the first time since its 2008-09 national championship season, the Hokies (9-18, 2-13) have won just twice since Dec. 8 — beating Maryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 31 and Miami on Feb. 15.
But Virginia Tech has played better recently — besides completing a sweep of the Hurricanes, the Hokies took then-No. 25 Pittsburgh to double-overtime and lost to ACC leader Virginia by four — and UNC senior Leslie McDonald said the Tar Heels won’t have any problems keeping their focus.
“With college basketball, you see a lot of upsets,” McDonald said. “We don’t want to be that upset. We want to give it our all and come home.”
UNC struggled to maintain its intensity earlier in the season. A win against Louisville was followed by a loss to Alabama-Birmingham, and the Tar Heels lost to Texas after beating Kentucky.
That hasn’t been an issue during the team’s first undefeated February since 1997.
“We just expected the game to be given to us (early on), and it wasn’t,” McDonald said. “You have to understand, when we put on that jersey, every team is going to play their hardest because it’s Carolina, and we know that now.”
UNC coach Roy Williams said he worried about a letdown ever since the Tar Heels got to .500 in the ACC after an 0-3 start, and he “worried about it like crazy” after UNC beat Duke last week. The Tar Heels followed up that rivalry game with their most lopsided conference win since 2008, a 33-point beatdown of Wake Forest.
Now UNC is coming off another thrilling rivalry game — an 85-84 overtime win at N.C. State on Wednesday that featured shocking turns and an incredible individual performance by 6-1 guard Marcus Paige, who scored 31 of his 35 points after halftime and directed an offense that didn’t commit a turnover in the final 24 minutes.
“The little fellow was off the charts and that’s just unbelievable,” Williams said. “Marcus did not play very well in the first half but in the second half that’s just about as good as an exhibition as I’ve ever seen.”
Paige’s two free throws with 3.6 seconds left appeared to give UNC the win in regulation, but McDonald was called for holding N.C. State’s T.J. Warren on an inbounds pass with 1.5 seconds left.
After what Williams called “one of the silliest fouls I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Warren made both free throws — part of his 36 points — to send the game to overtime.
McDonald said he was in disbelief, mad and confused at the time of the foul. Now that he’s seen a replay, he agreed it was the right call.
“You would have to call that call,” McDonald said. “At that time frame, he’s the best player, so I couldn’t really complain. If I was the referee I would call the call too.”
The Wolfpack went on to lead by six with two minutes left in overtime. Fortunately for McDonald — who had as many turnovers as points in Raleigh (two) — Paige scored 10 points in the extra session, including a driving lay-up with 0.9 seconds remaining.
“A lot of crazy calls, a lot of crazy plays, but at the end of the day we have Marcus Paige on our team,” said junior James Michael McAdoo, who was 2 of 11 from the field and 4 of 9 from the line.
Paige also had eight points in overtime last year as UNC needed extra time to beat back Virginia Tech at the Smith Center. The Tar Heels hope the clutch shots aren’t necessary this time around.