GREENSBORO, NC (AP) — North Carolina coach Roy Williams joked that he nearly broke his dadgum neck Tuesday night because there was a light bulb out in the hallway steps leading up to the press room at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“If we lost this game I was going to do it intentionally,” Williams joked.
Instead, the Tar Heels will live to play another game.
Garrison Brooks scored 20 points, Brandon Robinson added 17 points on five 3-pointers and North Carolina extended its season with a 78-56 win over Virginia Tech in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Armando Bacot added 12 points and 11 rebounds and Cole Anthony chipped in with 10 points and eight rebounds for the Tar Heels (14-18).
UNC entered the tournament as the last seed, No. 14 overall, following what has been a disappointing regular season for a school with a proud history of winning 18 ACC Tournament championships, second only to Duke’s 21 titles.
But the Tar Heels left no doubt about this one.
North Carolina used a 17-3 first-half run to build a 32-26 lead at halftime and then scored the first seven points of the second half, including a spinning layup by Anthony that resulted in a 3-point play.
The lead grew to 20 when Robinson hit back-to-back 3-pointers, including one where he froze the defender and stepped back to drill the jumper and shouted to the crowd “I’m here!” A few minutes later the senior buried another 3 to push the UNC lead to 68-43 with 5:26 left.
“I was just fired up,” Robinson said. “I get another opportunity to put on this jersey. I don’t want it to end.”
The Tar Heels held a significant height advantage over Virginia Tech and used it, continually pounding the ball inside to Brooks. The Tar Heels went to the line 25 times, making 19. Brooks shot 10 free throws, one fewer than the entire Hokies team.
Brooks did most of his damage in the second half — after he removed his goggles.
“I shoot better without them,” Brooks said.
Virginia Tech beat North Carolina earlier this season in Blacksburg, Virginia, 79-77 in overtime — but that was without Anthony and Robinson, who were injured at the time.
Anthony added a different dimension to the Tar Heels offense this time around.
“The game was a lot faster,” said Virginia Tech guard Jalen Cone. “They play faster with Cole on the floor. When we miss shots he’s getting the ball on the 3-point line and pushing it full speed. It is causing us to have to get back full speed in transition. The last game they didn’t have much transition.”
Hunter Cattoor had 14 points off the bench for No. 11-seed Virginia Tech (16-16).
Virginia Tech: Mike Young’s first season with the Hokies didn’t end the way he would have liked and there’s reasons for that. It’s pretty clear Young will need to add some “bigs” to the roster if the Hokies are going to compete in the ACC next season. “This isn’t the best league to be young and small in,” Young said. “We’re going to look a lot different net year, I can assure you that.”
North Carolina: Top reserve Christian Keeling injured his left ankle in the first half while running down a loose ball when Virginia Tech’s John Ojiako inadvertently stepped on him. Keeling had to be helped off the floor. He returned in the second half but ran with a noticeable limp at first, but remained in the game. It’s unclear how much of a factor he will be moving forward for the Tar Heels.
Virginia Tech: Will wait to hear if they receive a bid to the National Invitational Tournament.
North Carolina: Advance to face No. 6 seed Syracuse on Wednesday night in the second round.