CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — From tradition to talent to depth, there's no comparing the basketball programs at Virginia Tech and North Carolina. But for two-plus hours Saturday afternoon, the Hokies and Tar Heels looked as similar as John and Jim Harbaugh.
Neither could shoot, especially from 3-point range. Their defenses dictated a half-court game uncomfortable to both, and for the final 14 minutes of regulation no more than three points separated them.
But in overtime, pedigree prevailed.
North Carolina 72, Virginia Tech 60.
During his postmortem, Hokies coach James Johnson said his team is improving offensively and defensively. He cited Tech's response to adversity and refusal to cave on the season.
But he offered this warning: "I think we're wearing down a little bit. The lack of bodies, the lack of depth is starting to wear on us."
Even in this, by their standards, modest season, the Tar Heels can do that to you. But the ACC season is less than half complete. If Johnson isn't spinning, if the Hokies (11-10, 2-6 ACC) have hit the proverbial wall, well, then his rookie season as a head coach could turn grim.
Yes, Saturday was Tech's lone regular-season encounter with North Carolina (15-6, 5-3). But the Hokies still must play Duke twice, Virginia, North Carolina State and Miami once each. Home dates with Maryland and Florida State, even the finale at Wake Forest, don't figure to be layups, either.
The biggest concern is guard Erick Green, the nation's leading scorer. He has been remarkably consistent this season, rebounding immediately from rare poor shooting nights. But Saturday he took a pounding.
Williams rotated Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and McDonald on Green, and whenever Green eluded them, an array of Tar Heels post players were poised to bump him inside.
The result was 14 misses in 21 shots and only 14 points, nearly 12 below Green's average and only his second game under 20 this season. More discouraging for Tech, Green did not attempt a free throw for the first time this season.
That's notable on two levels. First, Green entered the game averaging an ACC-high 8.7 foul shots per game. Second, free throws accounted for 28 percent of his scoring.
"Mind-boggling to me," Johnson said of Green going without a free throw.
To me as well. But officials Ray Natili, Tim Nestor and Jerry Heater saw differently.
North Carolina "and BYU played him pretty physical," Hokies guard Robert Brown said. "Some calls in the second half didn't go his way, but that's playing on the road in the ACC."
Green's last field goal in regulation came with more than 16 minutes remaining and gave Tech a 40-33 lead. He air-balled a potential game-winner on the Hokies' final possession of regulation and didn't scratch again until 3:31 into overtime, a stretch of nearly 20 minutes. By then, the Tar Heels led 65-60.
Part of it was Green missing shots he often makes. Part of it was North Carolina limiting the Hokies' transition opportunities, which is where Green most excels.
BYU held Green to 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting. Next time out, Green scored 28 in a loss at Maryland. Next game up for Tech: a rematch with Maryland on Thursday.
While the Hokies are attempting to survive, the Tar Heels are attempting to develop with one of Williams' least-experienced and poorest-shooting squads.
Guard P.J. Hairston, North Carolina's No. 3 scorer, missed Saturday's game with a concussion, while Bullock and McDonald, the Nos. 2 and 4, scorers, shot a combined 4-for-20, 1-for-13 from beyond the arc.
Freshman point guard Marcus Paige and sophomore power forward James Michael McAdoo of Norfolk rescued the Tar Heels. Paige scored a career-best 19 points; McAdoo had game-highs of 22 points and 10 rebounds, nine of those boards coming after halftime.
"It helps show us how much room for improvement we have," McAdoo said, "but also, how talented we can be when we do play together as a team. I think we really saw that in the second half."
With Miami, N.C. State and Duke the ACC's apparent best, North Carolina is likely to finish below second in the league standings for only the second time in the last nine years. But barring meltdown, the Tar Heels should earn their 44th NCAA tournament bid.
Conversely, Tech will miss the NCAAs for the sixth consecutive season.
"I like the overall maturation of this team," Johnson said. "I'd just like to see it show up in the win-loss column. That's the tough thing right now."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times