By Jeff White
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — There are NBA teams whose starters aren’t as tall as the University of North Carolina’s. On Saturday afternoon, the Tar Heels’ first five consisted of 6-4 Kendall Marshall, 6-7 Reggie Bullock, 6-8 Harrison Barnes, 6-11 John Henson and 7-foot Tyler Zeller.
Each was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, and each had at least two inches on his UVa counterpart at the Dean E. Smith Center. Carolina’s first big man off the bench is 6-9 freshman James Michael McAdoo, yet another former McDonald’s All-American.
“Barnes is as tall as our [starting] posts,” said Joe Harris, a 6-6 sophomore who plays small forward and, occasionally, power forward for the Cavaliers. “They’re big all the way around, and they really tested us and crashed the offensive glass. The stats show that they really killed us there on the boards.”
With 7-foot center Assane Sene sidelined for the seventh straight game with an ankle injury, it was always going to be a challenge for 19th-ranked UVa to keep No. 5 Carolina off the glass. Not only do the Heels lead the nation in scoring, they’re No. 1 in rebounding margin. Nobody on the Virginia side, however, expected UNC’s advantage to be so decided.
In a 70-52 victory before a crowd of 20,496, Carolina corraled 52 rebounds, to only 32 for UVa, which starts 6-8 Mike Scott and 6-8 Akil Mitchell inside. The Tar Heels, playing for the first time since a last-second loss to arch-rival Duke, turned 23 offensive rebounds into 23 second-chance points. That added up to the most one-sided loss of the season for the Wahoos (6-4, 19-5), whose first four defeats were by a combined 10 points.
“For us to have a chance in a game like this, you’d got to do a better job on the glass, and for whatever reason we struggled,” said Tony Bennett, UVa’s third-year coach. “We certainly tried to work at it, preparing for them, but it was alarming how many second shots they got, or third shots, in a possession.
“They’re a terrific offensive rebounding team, but you can’t allow that many opportunities.”
Foul trouble limited Scott and Mitchell to 27 and 26 minutes, respectively, and UNC coach Roy Williams noted with a smile afterward that he liked seeing Scott, an ACC-player-of-the-year candidate, on the bench. But Bennett refused to use that as an excuse.
“We were scrambling, playing four guards and, certainly, some inexperienced guys out there,” Bennett said. “But all you gotta do is look at the stat sheet. Twenty-three offensive rebounds is too much.”
Bennett said there were “three or four times when we just forgot to block out … and you can’t afford those. There’s going to be some great plays where you’re going to be in position and they’re just going to make an athletic play or something over the top, and we’ll live with that. But the ones where we didn’t do our part, those are the ones I have a hard time dealing with.”
Five players had at least 2 offensive boards apiece for UNC (8-2, 21-14), led by Zeller and Henson with 5 each. The Heels shot only 35.3 percent from the floor — Virginia was only marginally better, at 36.4 — but their inaccuracy didn’t cost them.
“Both teams would have liked to have shot it better,” Williams said, “but today the rebounding was the biggest key, and a big plus in our favor.”
Against UNC, Mitchell said, “all five guys gotta come back and help rebound, not just the bigs. In most games we can kind of take care of ourselves on the glass, but in a game like this where they’re putting 7-footers out there, and their guards are still coming in and rebounding and getting putbacks, it’s a lot of pressure on us defensively.”
Barnes had 11 rebounds and Henson 10. Zeller finished with 25 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and a blocked shot.
“He’s a tough match-up,” Mitchell said. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, and he’s skilled, and they all run the floor hard. So they’re all a tough match-up. I still feel like we should have done a lot better tonight.”
Scott, who finished with a team-high 18 points, went to the bench with his second foul at the 9:10 mark of the first half. The game didn’t get away from the ‘Hoos then. With point guard Jontel Evans slicing through UNC’s defense, Virginia built a 27-20 lead. The Heels reasserted themselves late in the half, but UVa trailed by only three at the break.
Carolina’s lead didn’t last. At the first media timeout of the second half, Virginia was up 41-39, and UNC fans had begun to grow uneasy. They need not have worried. The Heels blew the game open with a 22-5 run.
During “that stretch in the second half, we really lost our way,” Bennett said. “We couldn’t get them off the glass, and we had breakdowns defensively and didn’t execute.
“As the game wore on, we got tired, and it affected us mentally with our execution. I thought we got — soft’s not the right word — but we just didn’t have the same kind of toughness and focus that was required and that we had early. We have to learn to play in that situation.”
Harris said: “I would say that’s all on [the players]. Coach Bennett was so fired up during that game. You could just tell he was so passionate about us trying to make a run and coming back. I don’t know if it was just a lack of fire or what, but [the Heels] kind of imposed their will on us there in the second half.”
Evans agreed. “Everybody was just lackadaisical,” he said, “lukewarm out there. We can’t have that if we want to go where we want to go.”
The Cavaliers’ resolve might have been stronger had more of their shots been falling. Of the UVa players with more than two field-goal attempts, only Scott (9 of 17) made at least half. Harris, who injured two knuckles on his non-shooting hand in the first half, was 2 for 9, and fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski was 1 for 7. Freshman Malcolm Brogdon was 2 for 6, and classmate Paul Jesperson was 0 for 2.
“We need to make some outside shots,” Bennett said.
Zeglinski, who was 5 for 8 from 3-point range in UVa’s victory at UNC in 2010, is stuck in a slump that shows no signs of abating. He’s made only 13 of his past 47 shots from the floor.
“He ranks as one of the top 3-point shooters all-time in our school’s history,” Harris said, “so we gotta keep reminding him that we have a lot of confidence and we believe in him, and when he has open looks to just take them.”
Evans, a 5-11 junior, acquitted himself well against his former AAU teammate Marshall. Evans totaled 12 points — his career high in an ACC game — and added a team-high 5 assists.
“I just think Jontel was awfully difficult to keep out of the lane today,” Williams said. “With Jontel, you gotta stop his penetration, and that’s awfully hard to do. He’s one of the best penetrators in the league.”
Harris said: “He was really carving up that D and providing a lot of offense for us, especially when Mike got in foul trouble. It’s tough, obviously, with Mike not out there, but Bub really stepped up and was creating for himself and for everybody else.”
Marshall scored only 5 points but had a game-high 6 assists and a steal.
“I was able to get some stuff on him,” Evans said, “but the ultimate goal is to win the game. Even though he didn’t really play that great, his team still won by double digits, and they got one on us. I’m just looking forward to playing them again in a couple weeks.”
UVa gets another shot at UNC on Feb. 25 at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers know the problems they need to fix in the rematch.
“Clean up those boards and clean up the fouls,” Scott said, “and we’re right back in this thing, so we’ll see.”
UP NEXT: UVa plays on the road again Tuesday night, this time at Clemson (4-6, 12-12). The teams met Jan. 31 at JPJ, where the ‘Hoos edged the Tigers 65-61.
“I know they’re licking their chops to get after us,” Evans said, “but we just have to forget this loss [to UNC] and prepare for them and get our mind right.”
Mitchell said: “It’s important for us to get back on track and for us to establish ourselves defensively, make sure that we kind of get rolling again and get our confidence back.”
Clemson whipped Wake Forest on Saturday, winning 78-58 in Winston-Salem, N.C.