By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Less than 48 hours after losing to second-ranked Duke in a nationally televised game at John Paul Jones Arena, the Virginia Cavaliers took the court against another national power, again on ESPN, but this time on the road, without a sellout crowd cheering them on.
“It’s really hard,” redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter said of the quick turnaround, “but as a group we said we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”
And so fourth-ranked UVA steeled itself for its matchup with eighth-ranked North Carolina at the 21,750-seat Dean E. Smith Center.
“It’s not easy, and the schedule did us no favors, but nothing was ever given to us,” junior guard Kyle Guy said. “We’re built for this, and that blue-collar mentality really helped us.”
Not since the 2016-17 season has Virginia dropped back-to-back games. The fourth-ranked Wahoos were in danger of doing so Monday night, when UNC went on a 17-3 run in the second half, but they never panicked.
Stay calm, junior guard Ty Jerome told his teammates, and they followed his instructions.
“That’s just the way we’re wired,” Guy said.
After UNC went up 55-48 with 7:49 to play, Guy hit a 3-pointer, and the comeback was on. Three more treys followed for the Cavaliers, including two by Guy in the final two minutes, as they pulled away for a 69-61 victory, silencing a partisan crowd of 21,386 that included former Carolina great Michael Jordan.
“I really challenged them hard before the game,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “During the day, we talked about what this meant and responding the right way to a hard-fought loss, and I think they did.”
The ‘Hoos (21-2 overall, 9-2 ACC) hit 11 of 20 attempts from 3-point range and shot 53.3 percent overall. At the other end, their Pack Line defense held UNC (19-5, 9-2) to 35.4-percent accuracy from the floor.
The Tar Heels turned their 16 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points. But the Cavaliers, on a night when they made only 10 of 18 free throws, tightened up when they needed to, on both offense and defense. They finished with 10 turnovers, but none came in the final 12 minutes.
“We had some chances to win the game,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said, “but they made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t. I think their defense was better than our offense. Their offense was better than our defense. We had a great run for eight to 10 minutes, or whatever it is, and things were going our way. After that it got a lot more difficult, and you’ve got to them credit for making it a lot more difficult.”
Heroes abounded for UVA in this one. The 6-2 Guy hit 5 of 9 shots from beyond the arc and finished with 20 points. The 6-7 Hunter matched Guy’s scoring output – he was 7 for 10 from the floor, including 3 for 3 from long range – and played exceptional defense on UNC standouts Luke Maye and Coby White.
Maye, who on Monday afternoon was named ACC player of the week, missed 8 of 10 shots from the floor against UVA and finished with four points, 11 under his average. White led the Tar Heels with 17 points but missed 13 of 19 shots from the floor.
UVA forward Mamadi Diakite, who missed most of the Duke game after knocking heads with Hunter, a collision that opened a sizable cut inside the 6-9 redshirt junior’s mouth, contributed six points and four blocked shots. Junior forward Braxton Key grabbed a team-high six rebounds, and freshman guard Kihei Clark’s on-ball pressure helped the Cavaliers build a 36-29 halftime lead.
And then there was the 6-5 Jerome. Still slowed by the back injury he suffered Jan. 29 at NC State, he totaled 15 points, 11 assists, four rebounds and only two turnovers.
“That says a lot,” Bennett said. “He was really good once he got settled in, and he’s not 100 percent — you can see that — but he’s tough. He’s a warrior, and I love what he did.”
After falling behind by seven, Virginia fought back and tied the game at 55-55 on a Jerome 3-pointer with 6:08 left. Twice the Heels regained the lead, only to see the ‘Hoos draw even again, first on a bank shot by Jerome with 5:00 remaining and then on a Hunter drive with 4:01 left.
Then came a pivotal sequence. With the score 59-59, a UNC possession went awry against UVA’s suffocating defense, and White launched a desperation 35-footer as the shot clock expired.
The ball dropped through the basket, triggering jubilation among the UNC faithful, but the officials stopped the game to review video of White’s shot.
“I thought it counted,” Bennett said, “but they said [the ball] was just on his fingertip [when the horn sounded].”
Instead of being down 62-59, Virginia had the ball in a tie game, and the officials’ ruling deflated the Tar Heels’ fans, if not their players. The Cavaliers’ next possession ended with a layup by 7-1 redshirt sophomore Jay Huff, off an entry pass from Hunter, and UNC had no more answers.
The Tar Heels, who came in averaging 88.3 points per game, scored only two in the final 4:40 Monday night.
“We knew we had to get stops to win the game,” Hunter said. “They went on a little run and the crowd was going crazy, but we have experienced guys, and we just knew what we had to do to pull out the win.”
For Jerome, the double-double was the second of his career.
“Guys just did a great job of making shots around me,” Jerome said. “You can’t get 11 assists without your teammates making shots, so it’s really just a credit to them.”
He saluted UVA’s head athletic trainer, Ethan Saliba, too. Saliba has been treating Jerome’s back injury for the past two weeks.
“I was real sore going into the game,” Jerome said. “I didn’t even warm up today. I just lay in the locker room with a hot pack on my back, just stretched a lot and tried to get it right. E does a good job getting me ready, so I just gotta thank him that I was able to play today.”
SHOOTING STAR: Guy’s five 3-pointers Monday night raised his career total to 202. That moved him past Sammy Zeglinski (200) and into seventh place on Virginia’s all-time list.
Guy’s two late 3-pointers were among his most memorable shots as a Cavalier. On his final trey, which pushed Virginia’s lead to 67-61 with 70 seconds left, Guy was fouled and had a chance for a four-point play. He missed the free throw, but that didn’t tarnish his performance.
“He just needs a little bit of space,” Bennett said. “He’s always one shot away from getting it going … We were trying to get him those shots, for sure, and he delivered.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was UVA’s fourth straight over the Tar Heels. Among the postgame comments:
* Bennett on the message he delivered to his players after calling a timeout with 12:53 left and UNC on a 7-0 run: “I barked at ’em. I really challenged ’em. I think Ty said, ‘We’re OK,’ and told the guys to calm down. I wasn’t calm.”
* Jerome on his poise under pressure: “My first year I watched London [Perrantes]. He was in front of me. He was so great at it. I try to study different pieces from different people’s games, and that was one thing London was so great at it, always staying calm through everything. I’ve been fortunate to be around guys that really do that.”
* Hunter on defending White: “I was trying to take away his shot. He’s a really good shooter. He’s really quick as well, so I was just trying my best to stay in front and contest all his jump shots.”
* UNC guard Kenny Williams on the Cavaliers’ defense: “They are always there. They play great defense, and that is what they hang their hats on. The fact that you catch the ball and they are there … They might slip up once or twice, but they make up for it.”
* White on Jerome: “He’s really good, really crafty, really smart with the ball. Great point guard. Gets everybody involved, gets them in their sets, and he can play on and off the ball, so it makes him hard to guard.”
* Diakite on the Cavaliers’ resilience after falling behind in the second half: “It’s just mental. Not worrying about what happened, just taking care of the moment, living in the present, not worrying about the past.”
* Huff, who’s from nearby Durham, on playing in the Dean Dome: “It was a lot of fun. Similar to NC State, I had a lot of people I know here. I looked into the crowd and saw a bunch of people from high school and even middle school, and then you see friends and family from home. But it was big. I wanted this win a lot, because I grew up not liking UNC very much. No offense to them, it’s just kind of the way it was.”
UP NEXT: Four of Virginia’s final seven regular-season games are at John Paul Jones Arena, starting Saturday. At 2 p.m., Virginia (21-2, 9-2) hosts Notre Dame (13-11, 3-8) in a game that Raycom Sports will televise.
When the teams met Jan. 26, the Cavaliers defeated the Fighting Irish 82-55 at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind. Five players scored in double figures for UVA that afternoon, led by Hunter (19 points).
Virginia leads its series with Notre Dame 12-2.