The Cavs (10-3, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) went on a 19-4 run late in the first half with barrage of 3-pointers and layups to take a 48-30 halftime lead before settling on a 79-72 victory over North Carolina in front of a raucous matinee sellout crowd of 8,392.
With Carolina, usually a man-to-man team, in a zone defense for the entire first half, UVa used its inside presence – causing UNC to collapse defensively – to generate open perimeter shots to completely overwhelm the Tar Heels. The result was 57.6 percent (19-33) shooting for the Wahoos in the opening half, including an impressive 8-17 (47.1%) from 3-point range.
"We made a choice to go zone," UNC coach Matt Doherty said. "They struggled against East Tennessee State's zone, they didn't shoot well against N.C. State [on Sunday], but they came out and shot really well today."
While the second half had its moments, as UNC (9-5, 1-1) cut the margin to as close as six with 2:35 remaining, the game was decided in the final eight minutes of the opening period.
UNC's early-season success has mainly been because of incredible man-to-man defense, usually holding opponents to under 40% from the field. But Doherty opted to go into a zone, and it backfired.
Yet after Virginia clearly had a handle on Carolina's approach, The Heels stayed in the zone until halftime.
"Maybe we should have gotten out of the zone sooner," Doherty said. "But we made the adjustment at halftime."
Almost as troublesome for the Tar Heels was its own struggles with Virginia's zone. The Wahoos opened in a man-to-man, but after Carolina got open looks and sunk a few 3's, UVa coach Pete Gillen switched to a zone. From there on, UNC scored just two points over the next 6:22 of the first half, and saw a 29-26 deficit turn into 20-point difference before Byron Sanders' layup made the insurmountable halftime margin 48-30.
"That was big for us," said UVa senior center Travis Watson. "We closed the half real strong by knocking down 3's and shutting them down. That was key."
The Tar Heels desperately opened the second half with an extra skip in their steps, and pressured the Cavaliers into some silly turnovers. UNC cut the deficit to seven on two occasions – the first time less than four minutes into the half - only to see the Wahoos stretch it back to double digits both times. Carolina's energy and up-tempo defense led to an assortment of easy baskets and timely jumpers.
But after a pair of Jawad Williams (18 points, nine rebounds) free throws got Carolina to within six, the Tar Heels missed golden opportunities on its next two possessions to cut further into the lead, and five missed shots and three UNC offensive rebounds later, Devin Smith put the Cavs up 77-69 with 29.4 seconds left with a pair of free throws and the victory was in hand.
"This may seem crazy to say it, but I'm as excited about my group as I've been," Doherty said. "To be down 18 at the half against a good team like UVa and cut it to six with a couple of minutes to go, as young as this team is, is encouraging."
One reason Carolina made UVa sweat was because Doherty moved Rashad McCants into the middle of the Cavs' zone. The result was that McCants got nine shots off in the second half after only four field goal opportunities in the first 20 minutes.
"In the second half we wanted to get [McCants] some more opportunities," Doherty said. "We put him inside the zone and let him attack. We didn't attack the gaps in their zone in the first half."
"Coach Doherty changed up our game plan a little bit," said McCants, who finished with 16 points and six rebounds. "In the second half they were playing more of a matchup zone and I got more in the middle to try to attack the zone."
But in the end, UNC simply couldn't overcome the disastrous late stretch of the first half, and its decision to remain in an ineffective zone defense.
"That was our gameplan and we were going to stick to it, and we made the change in the second half," Jackie Manuel said. "They just made some shots they hadn't been making and that was it."
Virginia's Todd Billet (24 points), a transfer from Rutgers, was 6-11 from beyond the arc, while Jermaine Harper was 2-4 and the rest of the Wahoos 3-11. But the damage was done.
Travis Watson finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers.
Raymond Felton (five turnovers) added 11 points and five assists while Manuel and Melvin Scott each chipped in eight.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.