By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Next time, Joe Harris will take the shot. It may not go in, but the UVa freshman will let the basketball fly, knowing his coaches and teammates have faith in him.
With 28.8 seconds left Saturday, after North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes made 1 of 2 free throws, Virginia took possession trailing 58-56 in this ACC game at John Paul Jones Arena. The near-capacity crowd responded in full voice.
“We had a chance,” second-year coach Tony Bennett said later.
During a timeout, Bennett called a play whose first option was a 3-pointer for Harris on the right wing. The 6-6 swingman separated himself from UNC’s Justin Watts, and with 20 seconds left the ball came to Harris as diagrammed.
For an instant, he considered shooting. But he hesitated and then dribbled toward the top of the key before passing to point guard Jontel Evans. The possession ended when Evans, challenged by 7-0 Tyler Zeller, missed a driving layup, and Watts rebounded.
The Cavaliers were forced to foul, and the Tar Heels went 4 for 4 from the line in the last 10 seconds to secure a 62-56 victory before 14,231 fans.
“We got a decent look,” Bennett said. “Joe just passed it up, and he’ll learn from that. I don’t think that’ll happen again.”
Harris, who finished with 10 points, said as much afterward.
“It’s tough thinking about it now,” he said. “Obviously I wish I would have shot the ball. [Watts] was up tight a little bit on me, but I still had an open enough look where I should have shot it. It’s just one of those ones where I regret not taking the shot in that position.
“Coach drew it up for me, had the confidence in me. I should have taken the shot.”
Without its best big man — its best player — for the fourth straight game, UVa (1-1, 10-6) battled valiantly as 6-8 senior Mike Scott watched in street clothes from the bench. The Wahoos trailed by nine midway through the first half, but by halftime they were up seven, and with 14 minutes left they led 43-32.
Nothing came easily for the ‘Hoos, though, in the second half. Each possession seemed to become an epic struggle, and the taller, deeper Heels (1-0, 11-4) clawed back into contention.
With Scott out, UVa lacks a capable low-post scorer, and Carolina adjusted its defense accordingly. It didn’t help that the Cavaliers who had been so productive in the first half — Harris and guards Mustapha Farrakhan and KT Harrell — struggled after intermission.
On an afternoon when those three players combined for 34 points, they scored only six in the second half.
UNC “did do a good job defensively, but we got some open looks,” said Harrell, a freshman who finished with a game-high 13 points. “We just didn’t hit them.”
Bennett said: “We looked a little tired. We were riding those guys hard. They played so hard effort-wise and defensively. We had trouble. I thought some of our turnovers hurt us … But [Carolina’s] defense was good, and whether it was [fatigue] or we got stagnant, we just couldn’t get as much in the lane, or when a shot presented itself, we either didn’t take it or it didn’t go down.”
In Blacksburg last month, UVa built a big lead on Virginia Tech but had to hold on for a 57-54 victory. Afterward at Cassell Coliseum, Bennett talked about how his team had been “leaking oil” late in the game.
That happened again Saturday, but this time the ‘Hoos didn’t have Scott, who’s averaging 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds.
After 7-foot center Assane Sene (game-high 11 rebounds) went 1 for 2 from the line to push Virginia’s lead to 50-44 with 6:40 left, UNC ran off eight straight points. Harris hit both ends of a one-and-one with 2:56 remaining to make it 52-52, but it was only a temporary setback for Carolina.
The Tar Heels were in the double-bonus for the final 2:27, and they punished UVa from the line late, hitting 10 of their final 12 free throws. Even so, there was no lack of drama at the end.
Evans, who matched his career high with 11 points, drove down the lane for a left-handed layup that pulled UVa to 57-54 with 63 seconds left. At the other end, Harris blocked Zeller’s shot, and Evans then drove for another layup, this time using his right hand.
“Those two plays where I got those two big buckets, I just knew I had to make a play,” Evans said. “And the last one where I missed, I felt like it was good, but it just fell short.”
Defense kept Virginia in the game. Carolina had not scored fewer than 65 points all season before Saturday. For the game, the Heels shot 37 percent from the floor.
UNC coach Roy Williams liked his team’s toughness late in the game, “but give Virginia’s defense some credit,” he said. “They were more aggressive and more physical than we were.”
Nearly five minutes elapsed before Carolina scored in the second half. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they managed only three points during that UNC drought, all coming on a shot by 6-8 freshman Akil Mitchell from the right corner.
“Early we got some good looks,” Bennett said, “but that’s where you have to be able to capitalize, and we didn’t.”
After Will Sherrill, with his foot on the 3-point line, hit a jumper with 7:47 left, UVa did not make another field goal until Evans’ layup at the 1:03 mark.
“First half we came out moving the ball, hitting shots, making their defense work,” Evans said. “But I think as the game progressed in the second half, we got kind of tired, got kind of stagnant.”
Virginia went into the game with four frontcourt players: Sene, Sherrill, Mitchell and 6-8 freshman Will Regan. Sherrill fractured his right fibula Nov. 29 at Minnesota, and the injury has yet to fully heal. That didn’t stop the 6-9 senior from twice diving on the floor for loose balls Saturday, but Sherrill had only 2 points and 1 rebound in 26 minutes. He entered the game as UVa’s second-leading rebounder.
“Hopalong,” Bennett, with a wry smile, called Sherrill, a team captain whose on-the-court importance to the Cavaliers also has grown with Scott out.
“His smarts and his experience stand out, and just his know-how,” Bennett said. “That’s invaluable for us, and we need him to get healthier as we continue on.”
The Cavaliers don’t play again until next Saturday, when they take on defending NCAA champion Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.
“Carolina’s a great team, and we played them tough, and we all thought that we were going to come away with one,” Harris said. “But we gotta bounce back, like Mustapha was saying in the locker room after the game. He said, ‘Don’t hang your heads, everybody. We gotta bounce back. We got Duke in a week.’ “
His players came to UVa, Bennett said, partly because they wanted to test themselves against such perennial powers as Carolina and Duke.
The loss stings, Bennett said, but they’re high-character “young men, and they’ll grow from it. You can’t not. Experience is the best teacher, and we’re getting a lot of it. Sometimes too much, I think. But we’re getting a lot of it, and I think those guys will continue to develop. They don’t have a choice but to be in there and get these experiences.”
Harrell, for one, won’t soon forget his first encounter with UNC.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “The crowd was so into it. It was amazing. I’ll definitely cherish the moment for the rest of my life. My first big ACC game. Everybody came out with energy. It was a well-fought game, and we played as hard as we could, but we didn’t come out with the win.”