The most anticipated return for North Carolina on Sunday night was that of defensive stopper Marcus Ginyard, who had missed three straight games with a sprained right ankle. But in the end, it was the comeback of small forward Will Graves, from the same injury, that ended up being the most key.
Back in the starting lineup, the junior made all four of his second half shots to help the ninth-ranked Tar Heels (12-4, 1-0 ACC) top Virginia Tech, 78-64, in both teams' ACC opener.
He also recorded two blocks, six rebounds and a steal for a solid overall indivdual performance at the Smith Center. But it was his three 3-pointers within a three-minute span in the second half that helped UNC pull away and round out an offense that had struggled to hit outside shots in the first half.
"He's our best shooter; everybody on this team knows that,'' said UNC forward Deon Thompson. " When his shot is flying ... and when he plays good solid defense and stuff like that it makes it tough to beat us."
Graves, who sat out Monday's loss at College of Charleston, said he decided during the overtime of that game (when the Tar Heels, not coincidentally, made only one 3-pointer) that he would do whatever he had to do to get healthy enough to return for the Virginia Tech showdown.
He didn't practice shooting much when he was sidelined, and it showed in the first half, when he went 1-for-6 while Hokies point guard Malcolm Delaney - also coming off a missed game because of a sprained left ankle - pushed Tech to a 38-34 halftime lead with 20 first-half points.
UNC cracked down on Delaney in the second half though, using defensive combinations of Ginyard, point guard Larry Drew II and freshmen Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald (who had also been listed as questionable with a sprained right ankle). The ACC's leading scorer recorded only one field goal after halftime, and it was actually tipped in accidentally by a Tar Heel player trying to grab a rebound. That cut UNC's lead to 55-50 with 8:32 left.
Less than a minute later, however, Carolina started to pull away for good when Graves buried his team's first 3-pointer of the game to give it a 60-55 advantage. And the onslaught began. A couple of possessions later, he hit another one from behind the arc to make it 63-55, then watched Drew bury a 3 make it 66-55, and then Drew fed Graves for yet another to give UNC a 69-55 advantage with 4:09 left.
Coach Roy Williams style has never been to lean too heavily on long-distance shooting, but the display was a good example of why, he said, his team needs a balance of scoring from inside and out.
"I still want Sean May and Ed Davis and Tyler Hansbrough to handle the inside, but I've always said we've got to have a real good mix,'' Williams said. "And our best teams, whether at Kansas or North Carolina, have had that good mix. In '05, we had Rashad [McCants] and Jawad [Williams], we had Melvin [Scott], we had Raymond [Felton], we had Marvin [Williams] - we had five guys who shot a good percentage from 3.
"Last year, we had Danny [Green], we had Wayne [Ellington], we had Tywon [Lawson], and Tyler made some too. The best teams have a good mix, and we've been trying to get a good mix. We've got a lot of guys who can shoot them, I like guys who can make them."
In the end, UNC made 5 of their 16 3-point attempts - the trio from Graves, and two from Drew. Ed Davis led the Tar Heels with 20 points, Drew finished with 14, and Thompson and Graves chipped in 13 apiece. Ginyard came off the bench and finished with 2 points and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes
Delaney had 26 for Virginia Tech (12-2, 0-1 ACC).
"There's not too many people out there who have seen Will play the way he's played over the past couple of games,'' Ginyard said, "When he's out there playing defense, getting all over the boards, rebounding the way he did tonight, I think everybody in this locker room understands what a huge part he is of this team, especially when he's playing like that."