CHAPEL HILL — The alarming nature of North Carolina’s troubles had coach Hubert Davis calling on a Bible verse, and addressing his team with a passage from the book of James before Monday night’s game.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
While the reeling Tar Heels didn’t respond by summoning a performance for the ages or anything artistic, they nevertheless came up with a needed 78-68 victory against Virginia Tech in Atlantic Coast Conference basketball at the Smith Center, to stop the bleeding and soothe the panic from their dismaying pair of blowout losses on the road.
“To stay with it through ups and downs, turnovers, defensively we had lapses,” Davis said. “There was a togetherness about this team that I just was very proud of them about. In the huddle, this was the first time where guys were talking about toughness, perseverance, and let’s stick together. The communication amongst teammates, the energy was really good in the huddle. Even when it looked like things were turning, we all stayed together.”
Caleb Loved supplied 22 points and Armando Bacot hauled in 20 rebounds as North Carolina opened a three-game homestand that’s packed into a six-day stretch by putting all five starters in double-digit scoring, despite a hole in the lineup left by Dawson Garcia’s absence due to an illness in his family.
The Tar Heels improved to 10-0 at home this season, a bounce-back win and perhaps a steadying of the ship after getting torpedoed at Miami and Wake Forest, and suffering consecutive ACC defeats by 20-plus points for the first time in 20 years.
It became a test of toughness on this night, North Carolina fighting through fatigue that had big men Brady Manek and Bacot gassed at times, and weathering cold spells. The Tar Heels shot just 33.3 percent from the field in the second half and missed 14 of 15 shots across one barren stretch, yet never trailed during the game’s final 16½ minutes.
RJ Davis and Manek finished with 15 points apiece. Manek grabbed eight rebounds. Bacot started a perfect 6-for-6 from the field, but struggled mightily the rest of the way, finishing 7-for-19. He scored 14 points to put together his 10th straight double-double, before fouling out. Leaky Black chipped in 10 points to reach double figures for the first time this season.
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“Not every game is going to be perfect,” Manek said. “Not every game is going to be pretty. But the way the guys played, it’s really nice to see how we can turn stuff around. One of Coach’s biggest things he’s been telling us, we’ve just got to keep thinking positive. Everything that we want to do this season is still available. Everything that we want to achieve is achievable, and that’s really got all of our spirits back up.”
Rather than light up the Tar Heels with anger, Hubert Davis said he placed an emphasis on lifting them up with encouragement during the short turnaround from Saturday night’s 98-76 at Wake Forest to Monday night’s tip-off here against Virginia Tech.
Keve Aluma scored 19 points, Justyn Mutts collected 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Hunter Cattoor added 13 points for the visiting Hokies (10-9, 2-6), under coach Mike Young. Virginia Tech moved within 54-52 and 57-54 of North Carolina in the game’s last eight minutes.
“It feels like it’s been forever since we won a game, so I’m just happy we won,” Black said. “I feel like it shows that we actually do have fight. I feel like this game really showed that we can dig in and gut some wins out. So really encouraging.”
Here are more takeaways from Monday night in Chapel Hill:
Brady Manek heats up down the stretch
Hubert Davis said he used part of a timeout huddle to urge on Manek, who admittedly had grown displeased with himself while stuck on three points for the night more than five minutes into the second half.
“I said, ‘Brady you’ve got to come back,’ ” Davis said afterward. “ ‘You’ve got to come back to us. We need you.’ ”
Manek answered by pumping in nine points across the game’s final 6:07, the period when Bacot picked up his fourth and fifth fouls. Manek connected on four 3-pointers for the game. He hit a 3 when Virginia Tech pulled within 54-52 and later he dunked in Love’s miss, waking up the home crowd and putting North Carolina ahead 60-54.
Manek’s corner 3-pointer, a set play coming out of a late timeout, increased the Tar Heels’ lead to 65-54 with 3:46 remaining. On North Carolina’s next possession, his cross-court pass found RJ Davis in the same corner for a successful 3.
“You get hot, you get going,” Manek said. “It was probably the dunk that got me going. Just went to the board and it was right there, and I went up and got it and it got me going. … It was one of those things you can’t describe. It had everything to do with the game, the crowd, my teammates. It was a good feeling to have.”
Not much off the bench for Carolina
On a night when their player rotation was reduced without Garcia, and with games against Boston College and North Carolina State still to come this week, the Tar Heels got just two points and four rebounds off the bench, all from Justin McKoy.
Hubert Davis rode his starters almost exclusively throughout the second half against Virginia Tech. Bacot, Manek and Black played more than 34 minutes across the 40-minute game, while Love played more than 35 minutes and RJ Davis played nearly 38 minutes.
Kerwin Walton (nine minutes) and Puff Johnson (four minutes) made brief and unproductive appearances off the North Carolina bench. The freshman pair of D’Marco Dunn and Dontrez Styles didn’t play.
“One of the reasons that I kept, in large part, the starting lineup together is, they were just really good defensively,” Hubert Davis said. “Virginia Tech has a lot of moving parts, and I felt like when we went to the bench, especially in the first half, the effort defensively just went down. I wanted to continue to have that, because you’ve got to make shots, but you’ve also got to get stops.”
UNC uncertain on Dawson Garcia’s return
Hubert Davis said North Carolina learned earlier Monday that Garcia, who’s from Prior Lake, Minn., would be returning home became of an illness in his family. Davis said he isn’t sure when Garcia might be back with the Tar Heels.
“We missed him,” Davis said. “He’s a part of our team, he’s a part of our family, and I really believe a huge part of our togetherness was to be together as a team for Dawson.”
Garcia, a starter in 12 games, had been used off the bench during the previous three games since returning from a concussion. He has struggled to settle into a rhythm, scoring a total of 14 points and shooting a combined 4-for-18 from the field against Georgia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest, though he did grab 11 rebounds in the Jan. 15 victory against Georgia Tech.
Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.
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This article originally appeared on Times-News: UNC basketball stops bleeding with grinding victory over Virginia Tech