By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The University of Virginia men’s basketball team is in unfamiliar territory. For the first time since 2010-11, Tony Bennett‘s second year as their head coach, the Cavaliers have lost three consecutive games in a season.
“We’re just in a tough spot,” junior guard Marial Shayok said late Saturday night after No. 14 UVA 65-41 lost to No. 10 North Carolina at the Dean E. Smith Center.
The defeat was the Wahoos’ worst since Dec. 30, 2013, when they lost by 35 points at Tennessee.
“I don’t think since I’ve been here I’ve been on the [losing] end of a game like this,” junior forward Isaiah Wilkins said. “It’s something that you’ve just got to learn from. I’ve been on the other side of something like this, so it’s just about how we bounce back.”
The Cavaliers’ next game — Miami (18-8 overall, 8-6) visits John Paul Jones Arena at 7 p.m. Monday — was always going to be important. But now?
“It’s huge,” senior point guard London Perrantes said, “[an opportunity] to get this bad taste out of our mouth and hopefully build some confidence moving forward.”
UVA’s losing streak began last Sunday night in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech rallied to win 80-78 in double overtime. Had the `Hoos won that game — and victory was in their grasp — the two losses that followed might not have stung so much. But Virginia, after stumbling against the Hokies, lost 65-55 to No. 12 Duke at JPJ. Three nights later, ACC leader Carolina (23-5, 11-3) pounded the Cavaliers in front of an energized sellout crowd of 21,750 in Chapel Hill.
“This was the most alive I’ve felt this place or seen this place since I’ve been here,” Bennett said.
UNC fans had much to cheer. Junior swingman Justin Jackson, who has tormented UVA throughout his career, scored 18 points in the first half. He finished with 20 points, four rebounds and six assists, and senior big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks combined for 23 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots.
The Cavaliers (18-8, 8-6), meanwhile, sputtered on offense for the second straight game after humming at that end for most of the season. The 55 points they scored against Duke were then a season low, but the `Hoos did not approach that mark Saturday night.
UVA shot 27.8 percent from the floor and made only 15 field goals, both season lows. The Cavaliers came in ranked second among ACC teams in 3-point field-goal percentage, but they missed their first 17 attempts from beyond the arc. They finished 2 for 20 from long range.
“It’s no mystery we don’t score a ton inside,” Bennett said, “so when we’re missing some perimeter shots — some were pretty good shots — that puts a lot of pressure on us defensively, and [UNC’s] offensive talent really got going.”
Against UNC, which had a size advantage at most positions, the Cavaliers’ defense wasn’t up to its usual standard either, but their inability to score was the story of this game.
“I think our poor offense hurt our defense,” Bennett said, “and then it sort of turned into one of those [mismatches]. We tried to spread the floor and go with four guards and had a hard time finishing at the rim. But when you miss those shots, that’s a problem. Points are hard to manufacture for us if we’re not hitting those outside shots.”
Asked about UVA’s offensive woes, Perrantes said, “I don’t know what to say. We’re struggling, obviously. We’ve just got to find a way to get over it, get over the hump, get over the slump.”
Shayok said: “There’s a lot of season left, so better now than in March.”
Seven minutes in, the Cavaliers led 8-6, but the Tar Heels went ahead to stay for good at the 12:23 mark on the first of Jackson’s four first-half treys. UNC led 34-22 at the break. Perrantes opened the second half with a three-point play that briefly gave UVA hope, but Carolina answered with a 10-0 run, and that was that.
The 41 points are the fewest allowed by the Heels in Roy Williams’ 14 seasons as their head coach. Williams effusively praised Bennett afterward and pointed to one stat in the box score.
“I have the utmost respect for him and his club, and I’ve never seen his team miss that many shots,” Williams said.
Foul trouble limited UVA’s starting center, Jack Salt, to 15 minutes Saturday night, but the 6-11 redshirt sophomore is not a big threat at the offensive end. The Cavaliers rely heavily on their perimeter players for scoring, and apart from the 6-5 Shayok, who was 6 for 12 from the floor, that group was off the mark against UNC.
“It seemed like nobody could make a shot,” Perrantes said. “Probably the worst part about it there were shots that were in that came out, especially when we needed them. It’s definitely takes your legs out from under you.”
Hall has missed 10 of his past 12 shots from beyond the arc. Perrantes has missed 23 of his past 30.
“Our shots aren’t falling like they were early in the season,” said Shayok, who led Virginia with 13 points. “We’ve just got to learn from it and stay in the gym and work on our shots. Eventually they’ll fall.”
Virginia gets a rematch with UNC on Feb. 27 at JPJ. First, however, the Cavaliers must deal with Miami and NC State (Saturday afternoon in Raleigh).
The coaches’ postgame message to the players Saturday night?
“We just said, `You’ve got a choice when you get smacked in the face like that: You can either lay down or you can get back up and try to fight,’ ” Bennett said. “We play a good Miami team with a quick turnaround. This’ll be our fourth game in a short amount of time, and we’ve got to somehow, someway find ways to improve and tighten up in those [troublesome] areas.
“We’ve got a good group of guys. I’ve been on both sides of those games. We’ll learn from it and try to step up. But we’re not playing great basketball.”
In a ceremony scheduled to start around 6:40 p.m. Monday, former UVA great Malcolm Brogdon, now a rookie with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, will have his number (15) retired at JPJ.
Brogdon, of course, helped the Cavaliers advance to the NCAA tournament four times during his illustrious college career, which ended last season with an appearance in the Elite Eight.
“He deserves it,” Perrantes said. “It should be exciting. I’m excited to see him … Hopefully we can put on a better performance than we did tonight.”
Bennett said: “We didn’t get through it well tonight, but every game is obviously very important for us, and we’ve got another chance on Monday against Miami. It’ll be a special day, obviously, honoring Malcolm.”
The Cavaliers “fought hard against Duke, came up short,” Bennett said. “Fought hard at Virginia Tech, played some quality ball, came up short. Tonight we weren’t even close.
“We’ll see how we respond. I know we’ll work hard.”