Carolina opened 2013 ACC play against Virginia on Sunday night with a tribute of sorts to the 1987 Hoyas, but the result was far from miraculous. Junior Reggie Bullock, coming off a slight concussion, gave it everything he had with an excellent all-around performance—22 points on 7-9 shooting from the field (4-6 from the 3 point line), to go with 5 rebounds in 32 minutes.
Unfortunately, Bullock’s Tar Heel teammates combined for just 12-42 shooting (28.6%), and the Tar Heel defense, after a solid first half, slowly broke down over the course of the second half. Virginia, after trailing by eight points early in the second half, ended up winning by nine.
Bullock’s counterpart in this game was the equally impressive Joe Harris. (Bullock primarily guarded Harris, but swingmen Paul Jesperson and Evan Nolte usually checked Bullock on the other end.) Harris turned in a polished performance that mixed outside shooting, a nice mid-range game, and the ability to drive and finish. “He’s excellent off the ball,” noted Leslie McDonald after the game. “He uses his screens, and he gets a lot of screens… He uses the whole floor and his teammates look for him and get him open.”
But Harris’s performance came in the context of a balanced team effort. Virginia also got very productive nights from guard Jontel Evans and the freshman Nolte (both off the bench), two early threes from freshman guard Teven Jones, and a game effort inside from Akil Mitchell (playing on a bad ankle). The Cavaliers shot 8-14 from the three point arc for the game, and had an effective field goal percentage of 60 percent in the second half—while committing just two turnovers.
Indeed, Bullock’s heroics were the only reason Carolina had a chance at all in the final minutes. His aggressive putback basket brought Carolina (having trailed by 7) back within one point at 51-50 with three minutes to play. But from that point onward, half court execution for the Tar Heels was woeful, and the Cavaliers, having passed up some earlier chances to bury the Heels, finally made enough shots to put the game away.
Just eight days after the strongest performance of the season, in Bullock’s absence, against UNLV, the same players who stepped up in that contest receded in effectiveness in this one. Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland, and P.J. Hairston combined for 6-23 shooting
Roy Williams made it abundantly clear that he was not pleased with his team’s performance or level of execution, twice emphasizing to a reporter that movement, cutting and screening in Carolina’s halfcourt offense had been substandard “for 40 minutes,” and stressing that Virginia had simply been better on offense and defense in the second half.
At times in the first half, Carolina seemed to rush shots early in the shot clock, seemingly with a mind to pushing tempo. Ultimately that didn’t work in terms of tempo—Carolina averaged 71 field goal attempts a game coming into the night, but had only 51 in this one, whereas Virginia’s 49 shots nearly matched its season average of 51. But it also didn’t work in terms of efficiency. Carolina shot just 32 percent from the field in the first half—thereby wasting a chance to build a substantial lead at a time that Virginia was also struggling offensively, with 9 first-half turnovers and just 38 percent shooting.
As Bullock put it, “In the first half, we were active on the defensive end, doing some great things. But at the same time, we were making dumb plays on our end... In the second half, it was glimpses of great defense, but it wasn’t good when we needed it or when we needed a stop.”
Williams attributed the rise in Virginia’s second half efficiency to Evans’s ability to control the ball, get to the basket, and create opportunities for others. But, after a talking-to from head coach Tony Bennett early in the half, the Cavaliers also stopped throwing the ball away or straight to the Tar Heels.
Meanwhile, Carolina also shot marginally better in the second half (42%) than the first, but that figure is misleading. Five of Carolina’s eleven second-half field goals came in the half’s first three and a half minutes, including four of the six second-half baskets for players other than Bullock. For a brief spell to start the half, Carolina looked like a balanced team with baskets from Strickland, Paige, and McAdoo to complement Bullock.
Over the last 16 minutes, however, Carolina was outscored 33-16, which was an accurate reflection of the difference in level of execution between the two teams. As Williams put it, “they [Virginia] dominated both ends of the court in the second half.”
In a somber Tar Heel locker room, Bullock had a laundry list of items for the team to improve on: “Sharing the ball, making mental mistakes, not getting to the boards, not finding the shooter in transition—things we work on every day in practice and we didn’t do it in crunch time when we needed it most. “
“We didn’t play even close to what we are capable of playing,” added Paige.
Strickland was even blunter: “We just made stupid mistakes on defense that cost us the game.”
Carolina’s players certainly are under no illusions about the level of improvement needed if the team is to have a successful campaign. Prior to the Virginia game, it was possible to imagine the Tar Heels would seamlessly build on the UNLV win, get this game, and perhaps start a substantial winning streak to start ACC play.
Now it’s abundantly clear that ACC play is going to be a long slog, and it’s going to take both improvement and grit for this team to get the 11 or so league wins that would nail down an NCAA berth beyond any question.
Virginia’s loss makes Thursday’s game against Miami even larger in that quest—the Tar Heels need every win they can get, and also need to keep their own confidence and self-belief up. The involved and appreciative Charlottesville crowd had a tangible effect on Sunday night’s game that spurred the home team on to sharper execution. This Carolina team needs a similar level of support in Chapel Hill on Thursday, to give them the best possible chance on a night that could shape the trajectory of the entire season.