By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — At the end of a frustrating night at the Dean E. Smith Center, University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett chose to highlight the positives he saw from his basketball team in the final 20 minutes of its 71-63 loss to North Carolina.
The sixth-ranked Cavaliers, who trailed by 16 at the break, outscored the Tar Heels 37-29 in the second half, injecting a measure of suspense into a game that had seemed destined to be a blowout.
“I told our guys I thought we fought like crazy in a second half,” Bennett said. “We played hard in the first half, but really fought in the second half and touched on a level of tenacity on the defensive end, keeping them off the glass, keeping them out of transition and limiting the quality looks for the most part that we needed to.”
In the first half, UVA forward Jayden Gardner said, the Heels “hit tough shots, but we could have been more alert and a little bit more attentive. I thought the defense was solid but not ferocious and tenacious like it was in the second half, forcing turnovers and flying around on the defensive end.”
Carolina, which lost to Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena last month, desperately needed a win in the rematch to bolster its credentials for the NCAA tournament. The Heels (18-11 overall, 10-8 ACC) were coming off a narrow road win over Notre Dame in which they were 2 of 23 from 3-point range and 23 of 69 overall, and they haven’t shot well this season.
Nobody who watched the first 20 minutes Saturday night would have guessed that. The Heels, who came in ranked 333rd nationally (out of 352 teams) in 3-point percentage, made 9 of 16 shots from beyond the arc in the first half. For the game, they were 10 for 22 from long range.
Pete Nance, a 6-foot-11 forward who missed the game at JPJ with an injury, entered the rematch shooting 28.2 percent from 3-point range. He made all four of his attempts Saturday night, his fourth coming on the final play of the first half.
“That puts a lot of pressure on your defense,” Bennett said, “because they’re spreading you out and they’re looking to Armando [Bacot in the post] … It makes it hard to guard.”
UVA gave up zero transition points and only three offensive rebounds. Moreover, the Wahoos outscored the taller Tar Heels 26-20 in the paint. But the Hoos’ offensive struggles, coupled with Carolina’s 3-point shooting, proved too much to overcome.
Virginia shot 4 of 12 (33.3 percent) from 3-point range and 27 of 68 (39.7 percent) overall. The Cavaliers were 8 for 25 on shots near the basket. To make matters worse, they were 5 for 11 from the free throw line.
Gardner was asked how Virginia can snap out of its shooting slump, especially around the basket. “Just work on our finishing, and don’t be discouraged,” he said. “It’s stuff we work on in practice. But we gotta keep working and simulate it and work at game speed.”
During one stretch of the second half, UVA missed 12 consecutive shots from the floor. The Cavaliers were off the mark Wednesday night, too, in a loss at Boston College. They were 4 for 21 from 3-point range and 19 of 59 overall at Conte Forum, and their shooting woes continued at the Dean Dome.
Gardner (9 for 17) was the only UVA player to make at least half of his field-goal attempts. He led the Hoos with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
“No one’s trying to miss a layup or miss a free throw,” Bennett said. “I thought we ran good, tough, hard offense and produced pretty much quality shots, but if we could have played two halves [of] quality like [the second half], maybe it’s different. We didn’t.
“Everybody will say, ‘Well, you’re struggling to score … you’re missing some layups and finishes,’ ” Bennett said, “but you just keep knocking and you try to make little adjustments, and I told the guys there’s a lot of basketball left … I keep hoping one these days we’re gonna break out of that little shooting slump, and it’ll happen. But but I credit our guys for how hard they played.”
This marks the second time this season UVA has dropped back-to-back games. In December, the Hoos fell to Houston and ACC rival Miami, teams ranked Nos. 1 and 13, respectively, in the latest Associated Press poll. Neither BC nor UNC is ranked.
“That was early this season, this is late in the season,” Gardner said. “So, it’s just all about how we respond. We have great leadership, great coaches, so we’re not worried. We just got beat tonight.”