CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – One year ago to the day, North Carolina fell behind by double digits to Virginia in the second half at John Paul Jones Arena and failed to mount much of a rally. The magnitude of that loss seemed significant at the time as the Tar Heels were largely despondent in the postgame locker room.
On Monday, after a fourth-straight loss in this building that included the fewest points by a UNC team (43) since the stall ball game at Duke on Feb. 24, 1979, there was a different vibe in the visitor’s locker room.
“I feel like its déjà vu all over again,” junior Theo Pinson said after the 53-43 loss.
There were plenty of variables working against the Tar Heels in this final game before March. Not only was it a second road game in three days, but it was against a team that UNC embarrassed 10 days earlier, handing the Cavaliers their worst loss since 2013. One team had clinched the ACC Tournament’s No. 1 seed, while the other was firmly entrenched in the ACC Tournament’s seeding smorgasbord.
Even so, UNC averaged a mere 0.75 points per possession, combining 12 first-half turnovers – which Virginia turned into 18 points – with a 27.6 second-half shooting percentage. After cutting their deficit to 40-39 with 9:26 to play, the Tar Heels misfired on 11 of their final 12 field goal attempts.
There was no postgame pity party, no “woe is me” remarks from Roy Williams or his players after the loss. The Tar Heels were chalking this one up to a tough loss against a tough team. Nothing more, nothing less.
“It’s the ACC - that’s what it is, guys,” Williams said. “You guys act like it’s nothing, but this is a pretty doggone tough league. We can stink it up one night and then we can play like great balls of fire the next night, and so can the other teams. I think everybody thought Virginia was really going to be a good team. We beat them at our place and nothing went right for them, but tonight I don’t think it’s as much what we did wrong as it was how good their defense was.”
Justin Jackson, who’s in the mix for ACC Player of the Year honors, was held to seven points on 3-of-10 shooting, tying his season low in scoring. The junior wing praised London Perrantes’s defensive efforts, but dismissed questions about this game carrying any more weight than a sixth notch in the loss column.
“There’s no long-term concerns,” Jackson said. “Virginia’s a great team. They’re seventh in the ACC, but they’re not a seventh-type team. They came out tonight with a ton of energy and they did exactly what they needed to do, so hats off to them, but there’s not a long-term concern for us at all.”
Or, as Joel Berry put it: “There are some times when the other team is just better.”
A season ago, the Tar Heels had not won anything when they lost in Charlottesville. The ACC regular season title, the ACC Tournament title and the Final Four were on the horizon, but none of the players knew that at the time. This group of Tar Heels remembers what happened in the days following their last loss in this building, which prompted a 10-game winning streak into the national championship game.
“This is another learning experience going into the tournament,” Pinson said. “That’s something we can say: we’ve been here before, we’ve been through the grind. You’re not going to play another team like Virginia. They grind you out, grind you out, grind you out. And we understand what you have to do to beat those guys…
“The big picture is that tonight made us better. Tonight’s going to make us better in the long haul.”
The loss at Virginia last season forced UNC to beat Duke in the regular season finale to claim its outright title, and this loss will likely demand the same result. That’s a path in which these Tar Heels are familiar.