There was little question of North Carolina's much-ballyhooed effort on Thursday night, not with the way it kept trying to come back. Heck, senior Marcus Ginyard even finally hit a couple of shots, freshmen John Henson and David Wear posted career scoring highs, and coach Roy Williams tried a lineup change.
Yet after losing to Virginia Tech 74-70 at Cassell Coliseum, the Tar Heels find themselves in a bigger hole than ever: 2-5 in ACC play.
"It was a heck of a basketball game, I thought, and the two teams played really hard. But it's not really a heck of a basketball game unless your team wins, and we didn't win,'' said Williams, whose Tar Heels (13-9) are circling ever closer to NIT, rather than NCAA, territory.
"My team competed harder than we've been doing - and I've never had a team where I've worried about how hard we were playing, but that's seeped into our poor play lately. But I thought we played with much more intensity tonight."
The Heels just could have used fewer turnovers (Tech scored 17 points off of their 19 giveaways), more offensive rebounds (the Hokies scored 10 second-chance points in the second half) and some timely shots.
After pushing back from an early 12-point deficit, UNC led 35-33 at halftime. But the Hokies, who had lost six straight to the Tar Heels, pulled away again when guard Malcolm Delaney scored back-to-back 3-pointers to give them a 54-47 cushion with about 12 minutes left.
On the next play, Delaney was called for his fourth foul and went to the bench, seemingly giving the Tar Heels an opening.
However, after UNC's Ed Davis cut the deficit to 54-52, Tech guard Dorenzo Hudson didn't let up, scoring seven straight points to give Tech a 61-52 advantage.
UNC cut its deficit to two points twice in the final 3:38 - once when forward Deon Thompson made a free throw to cut Tech's lead to 66-64, and then again with 1:09 left, when point guard Larry Drew II got a steal and layup to cut it to 69-67.
But after Delaney buried two free throws, a 3-pointer by UNC's Will Graves wiggled out of the rim, pretty much dashing UNC's hopes.
"It would have been if that shot had stayed in, but when things are going tough, they usually do spin out like that," Williams said.
Davis led the Tar Heels with 15 points. Henson, who has played small forward all season but also spent some time at power forward on Thursday, added 14, and Wear scored 12.
Delaney, 1-for-7 in the first half, led all scorers with 21 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Hudson finished with 17 points, and Jeff Allen added 14 for the Hokies.
The game began with a lineup change for UNC, as freshman Dexter Strickland (0-for-2, one point, seven rebounds) made his fourth start of the season at shooting guard, in place of Ginyard (2-of-7, six points, four rebounds).
"Marcus has been struggling," Williams said. "I thought he handled it great. He came in; he hasn't made many field goals recently, and he made a couple tonight."
Carolina was sloppy and turnover-prone early. But trailing 22-10 with about 12 minutes left in the first half, UNC came back to tie it 24-24 with a 14-2 run, culminating when Henson followed a dunk with two free throws.
Ginyard - 0-for-8 his previous two games and 6-for-28 in six games since returning from a right ankle injury - also buried a 3-pointer during the run, and Tech went without a field goal for about five minutes.
Hudson stopped the drought with a jumper. And with 4:26 left, Delaney - the ACC's leading scorer - scored his only field goal before halftime during a three-point play to give the Hokies a 29-27 lead.
But Carolina took a 35-33 lead into the break when Drew beat the buzzer with a jumper.