CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – With No. 7 North Carolina trailing by five points with 36 seconds to play, Virginia’s Devon Hall missed the front end of a one-and-one and Brice Johnson jumped to secure the rebound. The ACC Player of the Year candidate then fell to the ground, landing on his right hip as the ball rolled out of bounds.
That one random moment epitomized a night in which UNC was unable to make enough plays to clinch a signature road win and a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.
There was the time Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks fought over a loose ball than ended up in Virginia’s possession. Twice Virginia ran inbound plays with two seconds left on the shot clock, and the first resulted in a Mike Tobey 15-foot jumper and the other yielded a Cavalier offensive rebound. Justin Jackson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 in the final six minutes, and then Johnson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:45 to play. And then there were the Cavaliers’ 13 offensive rebounds and the 14 points they scored off those opportunities.
In a game full of offensive skill and players building their All-ACC resumes, it was the minutia that piled up high for UNC.
“It’s all those little things that made them end up with more points than we did,” Roy Williams said after the 79-74 loss.
In continuing a season-long trend, UNC played well enough for significant stretches against a quality opponent. After Virginia built a 29-21 lead with 6:37 to play in the first half, the Tar Heels locked down and got defensive stops on seven of the Cavs’ next 10 possessions to pull within one point. With time running out and UNC trailing by 10 with 7:56 to play, it once again came up with stops in four out of five possessions to creep within five points with 4:15 to play.
The Tar Heels got a stop on the ensuing possession as well, although they failed to finish their defense as Anthony Gill grabbed the offensive rebound and knocked down a pair of free throws after drawing a foul.
“Against good teams, you can never let up,” Jackson said. “We had multiple chances. There were a couple of times where we forced them into a bad shot, and then it would be a long rebound, which is hard to get anyway, but they would beat us to it.”
The Tar Heels held one of the nation’s elite offensive teams to 44.3 percent shooting (43.3 percent after halftime), but allowed Virginia to score on 50.7 percent of its possessions due to its work on the offensive glass. Senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who may have locked up ACC Player of the Year honors, scored 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting by finding room to work off a variety of screens.
“They got comfortable coming off those curls and down screens and flare screens to the point where we were playing catch up the whole time,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “They’re too good for us to do that. The big key for us was going to be trying to dictate what they were doing offensively, and we never got to that point.”
And although Joel Berry buoyed his team’s chances with a career-high 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting, Virginia took UNC out of its primary scoring strategy by limiting its ability to score down low. The Tar Heels were outscored 32-28 in the paint, marking the third time that they have scored fewer than 30 points this season. UNC has lost all three of those games (Northern Iowa, Louisville).
“They scored more points in the paint without posting anybody up hardly all night long because they drove the ball to the basket much more aggressively,” Williams said. “They had better spacing and Malcolm and London driving the ball to the basket. They’re really good.”
For the second time in 10 days, Johnson was effectively removed from the equation for most of the second half, logging as many turnovers (3) as field goal attempts over the final 17 minutes.
“They just beat us,” Johnson said. “They hustled a lot more than us. It’s not about me. It’s a team effort. We didn’t make a great deal of shots at that end. It’s not all about me. I’m not Superman; I can’t do it all.”
Which brings us to the root cause of UNC faltering at those little things, as Williams put it.
“The biggest factor of the game to me is that they had played with a high level of intensity from my point of view on both offense and defense,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said. “I think they were the actors and we were the reactors the whole night.”
Williams made similar comments to his players in the postgame locker room, according to Paige, saying he was disappointed in them for not going at Virginia with the same energy Virginia brought to them.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to play all 40 minutes,” Jackson said. “Obviously, Virginia is a great team, but we felt like we had a chance to beat them. We just couldn’t take advantage of it.”