BLACKSBURG, Va. -- The intensity was there. You could hear it in the way North Carolina senior Tyler Zeller growled at the roof when he didn’t make a layup after being fouled Thursday night. You could see it in the way forward John Henson pulled down rebound after rebound (16 in all). You could sense it in the way sophomore Harrison Barnes scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half, pushing his team back into the lead, and beyond.
You could even feel it in the way defensive stopper Dexter Strickland, obviously hurting after his right knee buckled on a drive to the basket, nonetheless joined his teammates in second-half huddles before limping back his ice pack at the end of the bench.
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels know they can’t erase last Saturday’s 33-point embarrassment at Florida State. But by beating Virginia Tech 82-68 at Cassell Coliseum -- and snapping a three-game losing streak away from the Smith Center -- they hope they showed they have learned from it.
“You’re only as good as your last game, so if you lay an egg the next game, there won’t be much benefit from it,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said after his team held Virginia Tech to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half, and outrebounded the Hokies 47-25 for the game.
“But I think we found out that we can’t be successful at any level playing the way we played last Saturday. I think we were rewarded for working extremely hard in practice the last couple of days, and it carried over to the game. And I hope they understand that that’s the way we’ll have to continue working.”
UNC’s practices following the FSU loss have been described as everything from “brutal” to “not fun.” In an effort to increase effort (which was sorely lacking in Tallahassee), every drill was a competition, every expectation (as well as some voices) raised.
Point guard Kendall Marshall (nine points, eight assists) said that he got to meet the “real Roy Williams.” (And probably not the one that says dad-gum and shucks.)
“He’s a lot of smiles with you-all, and that’s how he is as a person, but you don’t want to get on his bad side,’’ Marshall said.
Zeller, who’s been through some pretty hard post-loss workouts during his four seasons in Chapel Hill, said he thought that this week marked the most intense practices he’s ever been a part of.
“There were times during my sophomore year [when UNC lost 17 games and failed to make the NCAA tournament] when we’d scrimmage for 30 minutes, and that was extremely tough,’’ said the 7-footer, who recorded 14 points and 11 rebounds Thursday.
“But this week, it was about perfecting things. Defensively, we wanted every possession perfect. Offensively, we wanted every screen set in the right spot. … The running at the end was tough, the toughest running I’ve ever done at the end of practice.
“But was great for us, though, because tonight we played with a different edge.”
Indeed, UNC trailed 39-34 at halftime, as Hokies senior Dorenzo Hudson, who hadn’t made a 3-pointer in three straight games, was a perfect 5-for-5 (with four 3-pointers) for 16 points.
But Williams wouldn’t let his team hang its collective head in the locker room, reminding his players to focus, to play with effort, to get a closer hand in each shooter’s face.
And the Tar Heels (16-3, 3-1 ACC) complied.
With UNC trailing 44-36 early in the second half, Barnes scored the first six points of a 26-2 breakaway that lasted more than nine minutes and saw Tech bury zero field goals. The sophomore was 6-for-6 in the second half, connecting on drives and jumpers and a 3-pointer.
“Barnes made some ridiculous shots,’’ said Hokies coach Seth Greenberg. “The guy makes hard shots look easy. … He made one fade, like, he’ll be getting paid $3 million a year for that shot next year.”
Tech, meanwhile, struggled offensively; by the time it halted UNC’s run on a Robert Brown 3-pointer, UNC had a 16-point lead. In the end, Erick Green led Tech (11-7, 0-4 ACC) with 17 points, while Hudson didn’t make a shot after halftime. It marks the fourth straight game the Hokies have shot worse than 40 percent.
“I thought it was totally, totally, totally our defense in the second half,’’ Williams said.
He added: “For me ... our effort and our intensity and our activity the whole second half was better than it’s been in any game this year.”
The only downside for the Tar Heels: With 16:44 left, Strickland’s right knee buckled when he was driving to the basket. He lay on the baseline in obvious pain before being helped to the bench.
He was walking around the locker room without help after the game, and will be re-evaluated by team doctors on Friday.
Even with their top perimeter defender sidelined for most of the second half, Marshall said UNC’s performance shows that it learned from Saturday’s loss to the Seminoles, that it can play with the effort and intensity it takes to keep winning.
“Obviously, we wanted to play better,’’ Marshall said. “But at the same time, people started making these outrageous predictions, how we’re not that good now, how we’re not the team everybody thought we were. There are a lot of three-loss teams out there. Ohio State’s a great team -- three losses. Indiana’s a great team -- three losses. So I think we should just take it as a learning experience, and try not to revert back to the habits from that [FSU] game.
“… We want to get better, and I doubt we’ll ever run into that [lack of effort/intensity] again. I know this team, I know the personalities on this team. We’re all winners, and like I said, we’re focused on the here and now.”
Robbi Pickeral can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @bylinerp.