By Lauren Brownlow, WRALSportsFan columinst/reporter
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 4 Virginia was coming off of a brutal and frustrating loss to Duke, its second loss to the Blue Devils this season. They had just one day in between to regroup and head to No. 8 North Carolina, a team that had won seven in a row.
And Virginia had to do it with one of their better players in the concussion protocol and arguably their most important player still dealing with a bad back.
As frustrated as the Cavaliers had to feel watching 3-pointer after 3-pointer rattle in for a Duke team that wasn’t supposed to make them on Saturday night, it was just the tiniest taste of what their tenacious defense and grind-it-out offense does to opponents game after game, possession by possession.
“They’re everywhere on the court,” North Carolina freshman Coby White said. “Anywhere you’re trying to drive, they’re there. They’re in help side. They’re in gaps. They stay in front of the ball well. It’s the ideal defense that I feel like every team should have.”
The vaunted pack line defense did what it was supposed to do and made North Carolina’s life incredibly difficult inside.
North Carolina had made just one 2-point basket in the first 13:11 of play in the first half, and White said he felt like the team was settling for 3-pointers, not getting them the way they want to get them. Virginia’s double-teaming, swarming defense does that, but still.
A 7-point halftime lead for Virginia felt like a bigger one, and it usually is against most teams.
But North Carolina wouldn’t stop fighting, and a 17-3 run gave the Tar Heels a 6-point lead.
Virginia had been through so much in the last 48 hours that it felt like that was their moment to fold.
North Carolina’s defensive intensity ratcheted up so much that it was forcing the Cavaliers into live-ball turnovers, and the Tar Heels were converting. It felt more like North Carolina basketball than Virginia basketball.
It wasn’t enough, though, and the Cavaliers outscored them 21-6 down the stretch to get the win.
Senior Cam Johnson said there’s no moral victory even in that active stretch of good defense.
“I wouldn’t say there’s something we can take positive from it, because I think we do that in practice and there have been times we’ve done that before, so that’s just what’s expected now,” Johnson said. “I think we just need to take things form the other possessions where we didn’t do well and improve upon them.”
As well as North Carolina played en route to winning seven games in a row, their defensive issues from earlier this season have slowly started to creep back in. UNC’s last three opponents have shot 32 of 68 from 3 (47.1%) and have had two of the highest efficiencies UNC has allowed this year.
That was all fine against NC State, who could not stop the Tar Heels’ offense. It was fine against Miami, which didn’t have enough stops in it, either. Although it was almost not fine against Miami.
But it was not fine against a Virginia team that refuses to make enough mistakes to let you back in and has such good, clutch players all over its lineup that are never going to wilt.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett is usually so calm that he seemingly projects that calm onto his own players, and it seems contagious. It’s part of who Virginia is. He was less calm in this one. Even during his postgame press conference, the usually unflappable Bennett looked up at a nearby TV screen that was showing Duke-Virginia highlights from Saturday and said, ‘Don’t be putting that on in here. Come on. Why are they showing that?” He laughed after, but his frustration was evident. It’s not like Bennett to have those moments.
And Bennett admitted he was not calm when his team kept turning it over.
“We had obviously been struggling with that for the three games, the key turnovers, and I just said ‘enough is enough’. I barked at them. I really challenged them,” Bennett said. “Ty (Jerome) said, ‘We’re okay’. He told the guys to calm down, and I wasn’t calm. But they responded.”
They didn’t turn it over for the final 12:24.
But at the end of the day, it was a tight game between two good teams, and either of them could have won. One of them did.
Carolina had a 17-3 run. Virginia had a 21-6 run. But at the end of the day, North Carolina didn’t make enough shots and it didn’t prevent Virginia from making enough shots. Sometimes, basketball is pretty simple.
“They made shots and we didn’t. We made shots and they didn’t,” Johnson said of the runs. “Every basketball game, you can point to stretches where it’s runs back and forth, runs back and forth. We just need to be able to nip those in the bud when we start and make one of our own.”
Williams gave plenty of credit to Virginia, but he seemed frustrated. He said after the Miami game that he called as many plays down the stretch as he ever had, which he didn’t like because normally, he wants his team to run freelance offense and make the right plays. They weren’t, so he had to step in. The plays worked. But not this time. The Tar Heels couldn’t make plays late in this one.
All during the winning streak, Johnson and his teammates have said they weren’t going to get too caught up in wins.
The way this game went – a bounce here, a play there – it could have easily gone the other way. But that’s no consolation for a team and a program that wants to win.
“Losses work a little differently in my mind. They’re worse. The bad of it is worse than the good of winning,” Johnson said. “We expect to win. We expect to not lose. So when we lose, it’s a little bit more frustrating. But same thing with the wins – we’ve got to put it behind us and move on to the next one.”
The next one is at Wake Forest, currently the worst game in the ACC. North Carolina knows, though, that right now it needs to work on North Carolina.
Johnson still expects big things out of this team.
“We just need to cut down on little mistakes, getting (Virginia) easy looks, getting them open 3s, and then just taking advantage offensively on out-rebounding them,” Johnson said. “Outside of that, I think this team is capable of some big things and I still believe that. I think we should have won this one. It was frustrating to lose it. But we’ve got to move on.”