By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The bus that pulled away from Verizon Center a few minutes before midnight carried a tired and disappointed basketball team.
“To know it’s not our last game is good,” senior center Mike Tobey said late Saturday night, “but we definitely really wanted that one, and it definitely stings right now.”
The Virginia Cavaliers arrived in the nation’s capital on Wednesday hoping to leave three nights later with the ACC championship trophy. They had to settle for second place after suffering through their worst offensive performance of the season in a 61-57 loss to top-seeded North Carolina.
“Seems like we were getting good shots,” fifth-year senior Anthony Gill said. “We just didn’t convert on them. A lot of guys had wide-open shots that just weren’t falling for us tonight.”
Before a boisterous crowd of 20,719 that looked — and sounded — about evenly split between the two fan bases, second-seeded UVA shot a season-low 36.5 percent from the floor Saturday night. The 57 points also were a season low for Virginia (26-7), as were its three free-throw attempts.
UVA guard Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC player of the year, attempted a career-high 22 shots Saturday night. The 6-5 fifth-year senior made only six of them.
Seventh-ranked UNC (28-6) had much to do with the fourth-ranked Wahoos’ offensive woes. When the teams met Feb. 27 at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia shot 44.3 percent from the floor in a 79-74 victory. In the rematch, the Heels played inspired defense from the start.
“They definitely amped up the pressure, forced us out and kind of made the offense a little uncomfortable,” sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “But we just missed a lot of the shots that I feel like we usually make. We got good looks. Credit to them, they’re a great team, but we’ve still got basketball to play.”
The NCAA tournament field will be announced Sunday night, and Virginia is a lock to be no worse than a No. 2 seed. The `Hoos have won 13 of their past 16 games and, in non-conference play, defeated such teams as Villanova, California, West Virginia and Ohio State.
“We’ll learn from [the loss to UNC] and get ourselves ready,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said, “find out who we play and prepare the right way.”
Brogdon said: “We still have the most important part of our season to play, so we need to go on with a clear mind and be ready to play.”
This is Bennett’s seventh season at UVA, where he’s compiled a 162-70 record. In 2014, Bennett guided the Cavaliers to their first ACC tournament title since 1976, and they were in position to capture another crown Saturday night. But after Gill scored inside to put the `Hoos ahead 44-40 with 9:49 to play, more than eight minutes passed before their next field goal.
Virginia’s only points during that span came on two Gill free throws with 5:36 left.
“I think [the Heels] did heat us up a little more than they did last time,” senior forward Evan Nolte said. “I think we needed to move better. I think we were stagnant at times and weren’t moving as hard as we could have been.
“But credit to them, they played a very good defensive game.”
UNC guard Marcus Paige was 0 for 7 from 3-point range Saturday night, but he more than made up for those misses with his defense on Brogdon, who had totaled 50 points in Virginia’s first two games at Verizon Center.
“He’s ACC player of the year,” Paige said. “He doesn’t just rely on jump shots. He can get to the basket, come off screens. He’s probably the best player in the country at reading off-the-ball screens.
“I knew I had my hands full. I wanted to make everything tough and contested. I did a pretty good job of using my quickness. Other than one time he got me with a pump fake, I think I was there for everything else he did.”
Brogdon was 2 for 9 from the floor in the second half. His left-handed layup with 14:36 to play gave Virginia a 39-35 lead. He didn’t make another shot until the 1:38 mark, when his trey from the right corner pulled the Cavaliers to 55-49.
“I just missed a lot of open shots,” Brogdon said. “But my hat does go off to [the Heels]. I thought they played a really good defensive game all around, flooding the lane when I drove.”
Brogdon wasn’t the only Cavalier to struggle on offense. Junior guard London Perrantes, shadowed by UNC’s Joel Berry II, missed 11 of 14 shots from the floor, and Tobey was 1 for 4.
“I think for the most part, offensively we normally make those shots that we missed tonight,” said Tobey, who grabbed nine rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench.
For Carolina, the ACC tournament title was its first since 2008. For a program known for its uptempo offense, to win with such a superb defensive effort was particularly satisfying.
“We’ve got good kids,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “I’ve been harping on, pushing them, cursing them, kicking them, pleading with them, begging with them all year long to understand how important the defensive end of the floor is.
“When you’re playing Virginia, no one can have any more respect for a team and a coach than I do for their bunch. I love the way they play. I love to go up and down the court, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to play basketball. They’re so efficient offensively [that] we said, `We have to try to cut down their easy ones, really make them work for it.’ ”
At the other end, the Tar Heels had eight turnovers in the first 13 minutes, but only two more the rest of the way. Led by Berry (19 points), who was 3 for 3 from beyond the arc, UNC shot 51.1 percent from the floor against a team known for its sticky defense.
“Playing Virginia, we knew it was going to be a battle all the way down to the end,” Williams said. “I was even dumb enough to tell [the UNC players] about Ali and Frazier, when I was a college student going to see that, how they fought and fought and fought, and we thought it would be that kind of game because we have the greatest respect for Virginia’s program. Tony is one of the giants, getting bigger and bigger in the coaching profession. And what he’s done with the Virginia program is just off the charts.”
The `Hoos made the final 100 seconds interesting. After Brogdon’s 3-pointer cut UNC’s lead to six, Nolte hit a trey that pulled Virginia to 55-52.
“It was a heck of an atmosphere,” Bennett said. “Our guys didn’t die. They kept hanging in there, gave ourselves chances.”
The Heels stretched their lead back to 59-52, only to see Virginia rally again. Perrantes’ layup made it 59-54 with 8.8 seconds left. Paige missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Gill bombed in an NBA-length 3-pointer with six-tenths of a second left.
That made it 59-57, but time ran out on Virginia. Berry coolly sank two free throws to seal the victory for UNC. Confetti fell on the court at the final buzzer, and the Heels celebrated as the Cavaliers headed to the locker room.
“I feel like it’d be a lot tougher [to take] if we’d made our shots and we still lost,” Perrantes said. “Sometimes it happens. You can’t hit every shot. You can’t be hot every day. We just got [cold] at a bad time.”
It was the third game in three nights for UVA, but Carolina “played the same amount of games,” Perrantes said, “so you can’t blame it on the fatigue. Shots just weren’t falling for us tonight.”
Bennett said: “We looked a little tired, but that’s not an excuse. It was just one of those games. It was who was going to impose whose will on the other one. We weren’t able to come through.”