Virginia Tech-North Carolina Preview
After a trio of close games, North Carolina would appear to catch a break with three consecutive matchups against inferior foes.
More stellar performances from Marcus Paige could help get the 15th-ranked Tar Heels unscathed through that stretch, which begins Sunday night against a visiting Virginia Tech team that's winless in the ACC.
North Carolina's past three games have each been decided by two points or fewer - the first time that's happened since January 1976 - and Paige played a key role in the Tar Heels (13-4, 3-1) winning the last two.
Despite an ailing foot that has limited him in recent practices, the preseason All-American helped his team avoid blowing an 11-point lead in the final 3:45 in an 81-79 victory at North Carolina State on Wednesday. He made four free throws in the final 31 seconds and had season highs of 23 points, nine assists and four steals without committing a turnover for the Tar Heels, who fought off a Wolfpack team which was coming off a win over Duke.
Paige made 6 of 9 from the field, including all five from 3-point range, after going a combined 10 of 29 in the other two close games, a 72-71 win over then-No. 5 Louisville last Saturday and a 71-70 loss to then-No. 13 Notre Dame on Jan. 5.
One of his baskets in those two games, however, was the winning layup with 8.5 seconds left against Louisville.
"He's just been so effective for us in every phase of the game," coach Roy Williams said. "(His teammates) believe in him and trust him. He's willing to step up and make big shots. He's our most effective defender. There's nothing in the game that he doesn't do very well.
"I'd like for him to be 6-3, 220, but he's not that. What he is is 165 pounds to 175 - and most of it's heart."
The Tar Heels have never had four consecutive games decided by less than three points and seemingly have a good chance to avoid more close calls in the near future. They follow this home game against the Hokies (8-8, 0-3) with matchups against Wake Forest and Florida State - three opponents which are a combined 2-10 in the ACC and 26-25 overall.
North Carolina, though, isn't taking anything for granted.
"It's the ACC now. Nothing is going to be given to you," said forward Isaiah Hicks, who had a career-best 12 points Wednesday. "You've got to go out there and play to the last minute."
In fact, the Tar Heels had to do just that in each meeting with Virginia Tech over the past two years despite the Hokies finishing last in the ACC in both seasons. Virginia Tech fell 60-56 to North Carolina last season and lost in overtime at Chapel Hill in 2013.
The Hokies enter this matchup having been outscored by an average of 14.7 points during a four-game losing streak, giving up 78.5 per game. North Carolina ranks among the national leaders with 79.6 points per game.
Virginia Tech has also dropped 12 straight on the road after a 78-63 loss to Louisville on Tuesday.
Four of those road defeats have come in Buzz Williams' first season. The former Marquette coach has faced North Carolina just once, losing 81-63 in the 2011 NCAA tournament regional semifinals.
Williams' current program has lost its last four games against the Tar Heels and nine of the past 10.