By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Troubling signs appeared Feb. 10 in College Park, Md., where UVa surrendered a season-high 69 points, an uncharacteristic effort by a team that came in allowing an average of 51.5. The Cavaliers beat Maryland by 11 points that day, however, and their offensive proficiency overshadowed their defensive lapses.
Virginia struggled again on defense at North Carolina’s Dean E. Smith Center, and this time Tony Bennett’s team found itself on the losing end of an ACC shootout.
In 11 games this season UVa has held its opponent to 52 points or fewer. North Carolina scored 53 in the second half alone Saturday afternoon.
“That’s not us,” Virginia’s Paul Jesperson said.
Led by sophomore swingman P.J. Hairston, who scored a career-best 29 points, the Tar Heels raced to an 93-81 victory before a crowd of 20,616 that was stoked by the presence of former UNC stars Tyler Hansbrough, Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall and John Henson.
The first 20 minutes were bad enough for the Wahoos (18-7, 8-4), who until Saturday had not allowed more than 31 points in a first half this season. The second half was a disaster.
“That’s not us,” said senior point guard Jontel Evans, a member of the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12. “We got seduced into their style of play. They’re a team that loves to rip and run, and we love to play in the halfcourt, and it just hurt us tonight.”
Before Saturday, the `Hoos had not allowed more than nine 3-pointers in a game this season, and that was in a Dec. 22 loss to Old Dominion at the Richmond Coliseum. Hairston hit six treys himself Saturday, and the Heels, who started four perimeter players, finished 13 of 28 from beyond the arc against one of nation’s most formidable defenses.
“We made shots. It’s that simple,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said when asked about the difference between his team’s 61-52 loss at UVa on Jan. 6 and the rematch.
The Cavaliers lost for only the second time in their past nine games. The 93 points are the most Virginia has allowed in an ACC game during Tony Bennett’s four seasons as its coach. UVa came in allowing 52.3 points per game this season.
Over the years, Bennett’s trademark Pack-Line defense has generally been effective against outside shooters, but “if you’re reacting or you’re a step slow or they’re getting into gaps and you’re not there on the catch, then it’s no good,” he said Saturday.
“It should be pretty solid against [3-pointers], but you can’t take away everything and we weren’t taking away anything. I thought they got to the lane. I thought they got to the glass. I thought they got rhythm 3s. They had us, pretty much, guessing and a step behind, and it’s a bad feeling when you’re sitting on the bench saying, `We can’t get a stop.’ You just can’t. We just exchanged buckets. Maybe that’s made for TV and everybody enjoys that, but it’s not fun when you’re sitting there trying to get stops.”
Evans said: “It’s very frustrating. We didn’t have our identity on the defensive end today. [UNC players] were getting open shots, too many breakdowns, we weren’t communicating. It was just all bad.”
The Cavaliers wasted a magnificent performance by their best player. Junior swingman Joe Harris, who scored 26 points, then a career high, in UVa’s rout of Virginia Tech on Tuesday night, went for 27 against UNC (17-8, 7-5).
“Guarding Joe Harris is not easy,” Williams said. “He can really play. He can really shoot the ball.”
Harris, who’s playing his way onto the All-ACC first team, made 10 of 13 attempts from the floor, and he wasn’t the only Cavalier whose shots were falling Saturday.
Virginia hit a season-high 12 treys and shot 58.5 percent from the floor overall. In Williams’ 10 seasons as Carolina’s coach, that’s the highest field-goal percentage his team has allowed in a victory. But their sharpshooting couldn’t save the Cavaliers on an afternoon when they turned the ball over 14 times and gave up 11 offensive rebounds, breakdowns that the Heels turned into 29 points.
“We were not sound in those areas, and they exploited some weaknesses that we had,” Bennett said. “We got away from how we need to play in this environment to have a chance.”
Six times in the second half, UVa scored on a possession, only to see UNC come back down the court and bury a 3-pointer.
“We were just on a slippery slope, getting away from what we do, because our offense was starting to get going a little bit,” said Jesperson, a 6-6 sophomore who scored all nine of his points in the first half. “We gotta get back to getting stops, and then if things come offensively, that’s great. But if we can’t stop anybody defensively, we’re not going to go anywhere this season.”
UVa played stout defense early and led 19-9 with 12 minutes left in the first half. UNC answered with an 8-0 run, but Virginia steadied itself and stretched its lead back to 10 behind freshmen Justin Anderson, Teven Jones and Evan Nolte.
Slowly but surely, though, the Heels increased the pace, and their shots began to drop. The Cavaliers made 15 of 24 shots from the floor in the first half, but they also had eight turnovers and were fortunate not to go into the break trailing by three. A running 30-footer by Evans as time expired pulled Virginia to 40-40.
“Early on I thought we were doing a nice job,” Harris said. “We were making it a little harder on them, and we were playing well offensively. We were shooting the ball really well. But we gave up way too many points even at the half. We never give up 40 points in a half. It was totally uncharacteristic of the way that we wanted to play.”
Harris scored 20 points after intermission to almost single-handedly keep UVa from getting blown out. He’s in the midst of a sensational stretch. In his past four games, the 6-6 Harris has totaled 96 points while making 31 of 43 shots from the floor, including 14 of 21 from beyond the arc, and 20 of 22 from the line.
“He’s been on fire,” said classmate Akil Mitchell. “He’s shooting the ball great, and teams are really starting to close out on him, as if he’s only a shooter. It’s giving him opportunities to drive to the basket and get other looks. When he’s playing like that, he’s really helping keep us in the game, so I credit him a lot.”
Asked why he’s been so effective recently, Harris shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really care. I would have rather we’d won the game and I’d scored like two points.”
Evans finished with a season-high 12 points but also had a career-high six turnovers, five of which came in the first half. Mitchell contributed nine points and nine rebounds but was in foul trouble for much of the game.
When the 6-8 Mitchell went to the bench with his second personal at the 5:31 mark of the opening half, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins replaced him. Atkins, who started 12 of Virginia’s first 16 games, has been slowed by a stress reaction in his lower right leg since late December.
The injury has kept him out of five ACC games, and he’s rarely able to practice, but Saturday he caught a slick pass from Evans and dunked with 3:51 left in the first half — Atkins’ first points since Jan. 12. Atkins had another basket in the second half and finished with four points and three rebounds in eight minutes, his longest appearance in more than a month.
“It’s been a long road for D this year, just battling through that injury,” Mitchell said. “Even though he’s out there, he can’t really move. It’s good to see him get a couple touches in there. He’s still got a long way to go before he’s 100 percent, but I appreciate his effort getting out there.”
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers play on the road again Tuesday night. In a game ESPNU will televise, UVa meets ACC leader Miami at 9 o’clock in Coral Gables, Fla.
The third-ranked Hurricanes (20-3, 11-0) play Sunday night at Clemson (13-11, 5-7).
“Miami’s a very complete team,” Jesperson said. “Very good offensively and defensively. So we’re going to have to be on our A game. We’re going to have to be locked in defensively, and we’re going to have to try to get things flowing a little bit offensively also.”
The Hurricanes’ frontcourt includes 6-11, 242-pound Kenny Kadji, 6-10, 292-pound Reggie Johnson and 6-10, 250-pound Julian Gamble, all seniors. With 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey sidelined with mononucleosis, Virginia is perilously thin inside. Atkins knows the Cavaliers need him, “so most likely I’m going to have to step it up a notch from this game,” he said Saturday.
UVa returns to John Paul Jones Arena next Sunday for a 2 p.m. game against Georgia Tech (14-10, 4-8). That will be a rematch of their Feb. 3 game in Atlanta, where the Yellow Jackets rallied in the final eight minutes to beat the Cavaliers 66-60.