Like that gridiron contest seven school years ago, Carolina looked well in control of this one late into the second half, thoroughly deserving of a win. After (again) conceding a mini-run early in the second half, the Tar Heels push the lead out to as many as 9 points, paced by some brilliant finishing inside by Sean May and good overall team decision-making.
That all changed with the score 68-61, as Raymond Felton had two bad turnovers on successive possessions. Yet Carolina responded to Devin Smith's jumper giving Virginia the lead in the final two minutes with a nice dunk by May and a stop. Up 1 with the ball and over a minute to go on the road – a dangerous situation, but one Carolina fans are conditioned by long years of success to be fairly comfortable in.
Unfortunately, just about everything that could wrong in the last sixty-plus seconds did. May mistimed a pass to a streaking Jackie Manuel, turning a likely dunk into a bad turnover. Solid Tar Heel defense nearly produced a shot clock violation – but a questionable at best referee's decision on the deadball rebound gave Virginia another chance with 24 seconds to play. Predictably, Virginia ran an on-the-ball screen for Billet, Felton brushed against May in fighting through it, and Billet had just enough space to get off his shot.
The most disappointing part of the evening was yet to come, as a great ACC game was held up by a mind-boggling display of officiating ineptness. To stop a game for nearly 10 minutes for the sake of a trivial (and in the end still erroneous) clock correction displayed an admirable earnestness but also a thorough lack of common sense.
No one can blame Karl Hess and Ted Valentine for the initial stoppage to try to correct the clock operator's error, just as they took the time to confirm Virginia had not committed a shot clock violation on the previous possession. The officiating crew can be faulted for waiting all those minutes to realize, we shouldn't just rewind the clock to where it should have stopped when Billet's basket went through, we should also take account of the time Felton spent dribbling into the front court – leading to still another delay.
As a result, the last 10 seconds had the distinct feel of anticlimax. No one can confidently say that the delay made any difference in the outcome, but observers can say that it was not fair to either team – and perhaps especially not fair to the team which needed to make something happen – to have the flow of the game stopped for so long. One suspects that if Roy Williams had known how long the game would have been stopped, he might have eschewed the timeout and rolled the dice on Felton creating an opportunity without a set play. It would be wrong – very wrong-- to say the officials cost Carolina the game, but not at all wrong to say that the situation was handled very poorly. This game deserved better than to end with even the faintest whiff of controversy.
The coaching challenge Roy Williams and staff face the rest of this week is to channel the anger, frustration, and regret Carolina's players take home from Charlottesville into an inspired determination to get the job done in Raleigh.
As with most of the Heels' eight losses this season, Williams will have no problem finding in the game tape an array of correctable errors – such as some of the 18 offensive rebounds the Tar Heels conceded to the worst rebounding team in the league--any one of which might have made the difference. He will also see plenty of good things Tuesday night – making the eventual loss all the more frustrating.
Becoming the first team to win in Raleigh is a big request for a team that has had so little success on the road. Yet how the Heels do or do not bounce back on Sunday will have a far-reaching effect on Carolina's league position, tournament seeding, and overall confidence heading into March--and also whether this team is remembered as one that finally developed the toughness and will to close out on the road, or one which really never got over the hump.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.