Monday, January 11, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Tar Heels remember tradition

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The video just featured faces, names and five-word statements of fact. That's all it needed to get this crowd going.

They ran it during a timeout roughly five minutes into the second half, about the time Virginia Tech began to lose control of this one. The images flashed on the Dean Smith Center's big screen in rapid succession. Antawn Jamison. Phil Ford. Tyler Hansbrough. James Worthy. Sean May. Larry Brown. Michael Jordan.

On and on it went, with each guy saying the same thing: "I am a Tar Heel."

That's what you're up against here. It's not just the 6-foot-10 guys who can jump, although they're a pretty significant part of it, too. But you also must deal with the echoes of the past, the tradition of this program, all of it whispering in the visiting team's ear: You really think you can win here? Really?

You're gonna look M.J. in the eye and say that?

In the end, the Hokies couldn't overcome it all Sunday night. They gave ninth-ranked North Carolina a game for a little more than a half before seeing their upset bid dissolve into a 78-64 defeat and an 0-1 start in the ACC.

It was neither a devastating loss nor a particularly bad one. It was the fifth straight setback for the Hokies against UNC, which makes them no different than a lot of other teams that have to face these guys regularly.

Still, for a while, this one felt different. In the first half, as Malcolm Delaney dazzled despite his gimpy ankle and Jeff Allen battled for steals and rebounds and Victor Davila fought hard on the offensive glass, the Hokies actually looked like the better team. And the scoreboard at intermission -- Tech 38, UNC 34 -- reflected it.

The Tar Heels looked vulnerable. Raw. Uncertain. You can say opening conference play against UNC is a bad draw, but it sure didn't seem that way at halftime.

Maybe this was the year to do that. After all, the Heels had just lost at College of Charleston without two of their top players. They're still getting used to the four new starters following last season's championship run. They're going to be good come March, no doubt, but that doesn't mean they're invincible now.

"They've got a talented team," Delaney said. "They're not as talented as they were last year, though. It's not their best team they've had since I've been here."

But what sets a place like this apart is that no matter who's on the floor, everybody knows what's supposed to happen. UNC knows it. Tech knows it. The fans know it, can sense it, can help make it come to fruition with their energy the instant the momentum turns.

And it turned quickly. A few Tech turnovers. A few UNC layups. A transition dunk. A play where Larry Drew II inexplicably just blew by everyone and tossed it in off the glass.

Suddenly, North Carolina had a 47-44 lead. Tech coach Seth Greenberg called timeout. The crowd erupted.

And they played the video.

Normalcy restored.

"We can't give teams like that easy buckets," Delaney said. "When they start seeing the ball go through the hole, then that's when they start getting confident and started knocking down some shots."

In other words, they start playing like the high-level recruits they are, making plays that guys at UNC make.

"There were a couple plays like that," Tech forward J.T. Thompson said. "I grew up in Carolina. That's what I watched. But I can't sit there and be stunned, because I'm playing against it now. I'm not just watching it on TV.

"So it didn't really shock me out there then; maybe it'll shock me when I watch film."

Maybe. But the Hokies needn't dwell on this one for long. They've got Miami coming to town Wednesday night, a chance to get their first conference win before heading back out on the road.

"I am a Hurricane" doesn't have quite the same effect, you know.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email