CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. – For all of the recent struggles of the Virginia Cavaliers, nothing can compare to the three-month long odyssey the North Carolina Tar Heels have endured.
Especially on the rare occasion that the Heels play well and still lose.
UNC, the second winningest program of all time, set perhaps its most dubious record tonight as Roger Mason Jr. and Chris Williams each scored 18 points to lead Virginia to a 73-63 victory over the Tar Heels before a crowd of 7,331 at University Hall.
Carolina's 16th loss sets a school record for most in one season. Only two other times, in the 1950-51 and 1951-52 seasons, have the Heels lost as many as 15 games.
"It's very disappointing, it is painful and to the fact that it happened during my senior year and happened at Carolina period -- it tests your character," said Kris Lang, who led UNC with 19 points. "You find out who you really are and the people around you who they really are."
Unlike most UNC (6-16, 2-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) games this season, the outcome was in doubt with less than a minute left to play. Carolina battled back from a 16-point deficit with 14 minutes left in the game to take a 56-55 lead on an Adam Boone layup after a Jason Capel steal with 9:23 left.
The 20-3 run began with a Will Johnson (five points in 16 minutes) 3-pointer to make it 52-39. Jawad Williams followed with a slam and a pair of free throws. After UVa's Williams connected on a jumper and a free throw, UNC rattled off 13 unanswered points.
Capel hit a pair of free throws. Boone sank a 3-pointer. A Lang dunk was made possible after Johnson fought through a double team and fed Boone, who dumped the ball inside to Lang. Lang nailed a pair of free throws and converted on an easy layup, which was followed by Boone's go-ahead basket.
"There were a lot of good defensive possessions for us," said Boone (five points, four assists and four turnovers in 22 minutes). "We had some nice fast breaks. I think that's the key to any team making a run is getting easy baskets and we got two or three fast-break layups and got some free throws because the defense was definitely key in that run."
But Mason's 3-pointer ignited a Virginia 8-0 run, aided mainly by UNC mistakes.
Boone was called for charging before registering another turnover which was followed by a Melvin Scott air ball which was followed by a missed 3 and then another Boone turnover when he tossed a bounce pass at Jawad Williams' ankles.
"It hurt. I made a couple of plays in there I wish I could take back or do a little differently and we has some trouble executing a couple of times," Boone said. "But you have to give them credit too. They made plays. They're a very good team but we have to do a lot better than that the next time we are in that situation."
Carolina, however, didn't wilt.
The Tar Heels fought back, forcing a shot-clock violation on the Wahoos and cut the margin to 65-63 Virginia with 1:47 left on an eight-foot jump-hook by Lang.
But UVa freshman guard Keith Jenifer converted a layup with four seconds left on the shot clock and UNC never got any closer.
The Heels went scoreless the rest of the way, missing an array of 3s while UVa sank four free throws to close out the game and officially give the Heels its record-breaking defeat.
"You know what. It seems like every time we pick up the paper there's a new record being broken and you can't worry about that," said Johnson. "We need to worry about fighting the next game. We could look at it and say, ‘Well, let's quit. It's not a good season.' Or we can come out and finish strong and get a few more wins and go up in the standings of the ACC and position ourselves for a run in the ACC Tournament."
Travis Watson finished with 17 points and he and Williams each pulled down 10 boards for the Wahoos, who improved to 16-6 and 6-5.
Capel was the only other Tar Heel in double figures with 12 points despite a 1-11 performance from the field. Williams added nine points for UNC.
Virginia jumped out to a 19-3 lead 4:34 into the game on an array of short jumpers, layups and a trio of 3-pointers. Carolina, however, then switched to a zone defense and slowly crept back into the game, outscoring the Wahoos 8-2 over the next 4:17 to cut the margin to 21-11.
"In the zone you really have to communicate and we really picked up our communication and it helped out," Johnson said. "They have four guys that can shoot and even five, Watson hit a 3 tonight. So we needed to communicate and I thought we did a better job of that tonight."
UVa responded with a quick 4-0 spurt only to see the Tar Heels close to within 27-20 on a Melvin Scott free throw with 5:20 left before halftime.
The Hoos closed the half outscoring the Heels 12-7 and despite being down 39-27 at the intermission, UNC had to feel good about its situation.
Carolina shot just 25.9 percent (7-27) in the first half but connected on 13 of their 17 free throws but its zone frustrated the Cavs and kept UNC in the game.
"Our man-to-man has been fairly decent at times except for the Wake Forest game and we were concerned about their athleticism and the way they go towards the basket," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "But the zone slows them up and forces them to pass on the perimeter quite a bit. They scored 73 and I am not sure what their average is but it is probably more than that. So it did put the tempo in our favor and helped us."
To a man the Heels say there are no moral victories, especially when they entered the history books in negative fashion once again. But they went out fighting. Maybe the effort concerns of the past are just that -- a thing of the past.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.