For a moment, just a moment, Virginia Tech’s first-half performance against No. 8 North Carolina roused some concern.
Fresh off the worst loss in the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill, a 33-point drubbing at the hands of Florida State, a 7-of-14 three-point shooting attack gave the Hokies a five-point halftime lead.
But a subtle sign from forward John Henson set everything in motion for the Tar Heels with 14:48 to play in the second half.
After knocking down a jumper from the top of the key, Henson flashed a wry smile to the North Carolina bench, his basket part of a 24-2 UNC run that silenced Virginia Tech and put his Tar Heels solidly in control, on their way to an 82-68 win in Blacksburg on Thursday night.
Henson finished with a big double-double, tallying 16 points, 16 rebounds, and six blocks.
Just as Deividas Dulkys lit up the Tar Heels for 32 points and 8-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc, three-pointing shooting was the story in the first half against Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ Dorenzo Hudson had 16 first-half points on 5-of-5 shooting from three and Virginia Tech rarely tried to challenge Carolina’s length inside in the first 20 minutes, taking just three shots in the paint and thirty, count them, thirty, jumpers.
As Carolina’s transition game began clicking and the pace picked up, Virginia Tech lost the fresh legs that fueled their first half push, falling behind for good by the midway point of the second.
The engine was running. Henson was blocking shots. Marshall was finding teammates in transition with unique precision. The defensive effort, offensive aggressiveness, and overall body language of the Tar Heels in the final twenty minutes was the polar opposite of what we saw against Florida State, looking more like the team that is expected to contend for a national title.
Tyler Zeller matched Henson on the block with a double-double of his own (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Harrison Barnes redeemed himself after a slow first half, finishing with a game-high 27 points.
But with the strong performance comes a somber note. Carolina may have lost guard Dexter Strickland.
Going up for a layup in the second half, Strickland’s right knee buckled, sending him to the ground writhing in pain. He was helped off the floor on the shoulders of Roy Williams and teammates. North Carolina announced that his knee will be evaluated on Friday.
The Tar Heels have a week off to prepare for NC State at home on Jan. 26.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_