By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –– In a 10-second span Saturday night, Tomas Woldetensae went from anguish to ecstasy at North Carolina’s Dean E. Smith Center.
“Such a big emotional swing, for sure,” said Woldetensae, a 6-5 junior who’s in his first year at the University of Virginia. “At first I thought I lost it for my teammates, and then I had the chance to redeem myself.”
With 10.3 seconds left and UVA leading 61-59, UNC’s Christian Keeling went up for a 3-pointer. His shot missed, but he was fouled by Woldetensae. Keeling, who entered the game shooting 63.2 percent from the line, coolly hit all three free throws to put the Tar Heels ahead 62-61.
“That’s a deflating moment,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, but his team didn’t panic.
“Ten seconds is a lot of time,” sophomore point guard Kihei Clark said.
Dramatic last-second shots became a staple of the Cavaliers in their run to the NCAA title last season. Woldetensae wasn’t part of that team, but he showed similar moxie Saturday night. On UVA’s final possession, Clark drove baseline and then passed to Woldetensae in the left corner.
A deft fake sent his defender, Leaky Black, flying by, after which the left-handed Woldetensae dribbled once to his right and launched a 3-pointer. It dropped through with eight-tenths of a second left, silencing the home fans in the crowd of 21,308.
UVA 64, UNC 62.
“Amazing,” Woldetensae said of the moment, and that wasn’t hyperbole.
“For Kihei to get down the floor to find him, and then for Tomas to stick it, that was as good as it gets,” Bennett said.
“Dude hit a heck of a shot,” Carolina guard Cole Anthony said of Woldetensae, who finished 6 for 10 from beyond the arc.
“Tom always makes up for mistakes, immediately,” UVA guard Casey Morsell said. “That shot, that was him making up for it in the biggest way possible.”
For UVA (17-7 overall, 9-5 ACC), the victory was its sixth straight over the Tar Heels, its longest winning streak in the series in more than a century. More history: In a series that dates back to 1911, the Wahoos have won back-to-back games in Chapel Hill for the first time.
“It’s always nice to get a road win,” Clark said. “especially in a place like this, with all the history.”
For the second time in a week, the Heels (10-15, 3-11) lost on a last-second shot. Duke edged North Carolina 98-96 in overtime last weekend.
“There’s no secret formula you can say to the kids right now,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “They’re devastated. It’s been a devastating year.”
Keeling said: “I think we hold the record for buzzer-beaters made against us.”
Woldetensae led Virginia with 18 points. Also scoring in double figures for the Hoos were Clark, Morsell and Mamadi Diakite.
Diakite, a 6-9 fifth-year senior, finished with 15 points. His three-point play put UVA ahead 60-57 with 48.9 seconds left. Diakite also had a key basket late in Virginia’s overtime victory over Notre Dame at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday.
“In critical moments when it’s hard, I just clear my mind,” Diakite said Saturday night, “and I basically know what to do, so I just go for it. I don’t think. I just play. Whatever the defense gives me, that’s what I’m taking.”
The 5-9 Clark totaled 10 points, nine assists, and one steal. He was only 4 for 13 from the floor and turned the ball over five times, but he delivered in the clutch, as he’s done so often as a Cavalier.
“He didn’t play his best game in certain ways, there’s a lot on his plate, but he makes the plays,” Bennett said. “He’s tough, and he stepped up in the second half. Some guys just have it inside of them.”
Morsell, a 6-3 freshman, scored 10 points in 19-plus minutes off the bench. He also had three rebounds, three steals, one assist and no turnovers. He’s shooting only 17.1 percent from 3-point range (and 27.4 percent overall) this season, but Morsell was 2 for 2 from beyond the arc against UNC and 4 for 6 overall.
“Obviously his percentages aren’t great, but that doesn’t matter,” Bennett said. “Every game starts anew.”
Woldetensae, who’s from Bologna, Italy, spent two years at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa before transferring to UVA last summer. He missed 18 of his first 21 shots from beyond the arc as a Cavalier, but he’s made at least six treys in three of his past six games, and his 3-point percentage is up to 38.6.
“He’s really improved,” Bennett said. “If you talk to him and you’re around him, he’s a very steady, calm person. He’s unaffected.”
Bennett smiled. “I don’t know if it’s because he didn’t grow up here and he doesn’t understand, hey, this is Carolina, this is the ACC. He just plays … He’s a bit of a streaky shooter, so when he gets his rhythm and his timing, you want to try to find him, and to do that in that setting was big time.”
UVA came to Chapel Hill shooting 28.6 percent from 3-point range, which ranked last among ACC teams. Against the Heels, however, the Hoos were 9 for 21 (42.9 percent) from long range.
“Those are numbers we’re not used to seeing,” Bennett said. “It just gives you the balance that you need to be an efficient quality offensive basketball team. You have to hit some outside shots.”
The Cavaliers won for the fifth time in their past six games and remain fourth in the ACC. Their postseason résumé continues to improve.
“It was an important game for us,” Bennett said. “I’m thankful for how our guys responded, and I thought we made plays down the stretch, as [UNC] did too.”
Morsell said: “It’s a good step for our team.”
PLENTY IN RESERVE: Virginia’s bench finished with 17 points, to zero for UNC’s. In addition to Morsell, 7-0 redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro had four points and 6-7 sophomore Kody Stattmann added three.
“To come in here––forget about records––and to beat [the Tar Heels], you need some things to happen,” Bennett said. “You need to shoot it well. You need to get more people playing well, and that was perfect timing … Bench scoring, 3-point shooting, free throws, all those things are huge for us.”
When these teams met in Charlottesville on Dec. 8, Caffaro came off the bench to score 10 points and grab seven rebounds in then-No. 5 Virginia’s 56-47 win over then-No. 7 North Carolina.
“I feel like we’re always ready,” Caffaro said of the Cavaliers’ reserves. “We just want to play and make the most out of our minutes.”
Morsell scored all 10 of his points in the second half. His first basket, a 3-pointer, ended a 5-0 run by Carolina and tied the game at 39-39 with 12:48 to play.
“I’ve just got to have a clear mindset for each shot, and not have one shot affect the next shot,” Morsell said. “I think that was my problem earlier [in the season]. Now it’s just shoot each shot the same and have a short memory.”
SOUND BITES: The Cavaliers’ sweep of two regular-season games with UNC is their first since 2001-02. Among the postgame comments Saturday night:
• Bennett: “There’s such a small margin between winning and losing.”
• Roy Williams on his postgame conversation with Virginia’s No. 25: “Diakite came over at the end of the game and said something to me that was very nice. You love Tony Bennett and the way he coaches and his club and those kind of kids that they have.”
• Diakite on his embrace of Woldetensae after the game-winning shot: “I was just happy. I was just screaming nonsense. I held him up, and that’s it.”
• Clark on his poise in late-game situations: “Being a point guard, you’ve got to stay collected and calm, especially in moments like those. Your teammates look to you down the stretch.”
• Clark on Woldetensae’s shooting woes early in the season: “I think he kind of just had to get used to the pace of the game. He was coming off the wrist surgery, so I think that kind of [took] a toll on him, but he’s playing great now.”
• Woldetensae on his transition to Division I hoops: “I believe in myself. Signing that UVA [scholarship], I knew it would be a challenge. I was looking forward to that challenge.”
• Morsell on what the other UVA players told Woldetensae during the timeout that followed Keeling’s three free throws: “Next play. There’s nothing we can do about it. There’s 10 seconds left, plenty of time to make a play.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Before playing back-to-back road games (against Pitt and Virginia Tech), UVA hosts Boston College at John Paul Jones Arena on Wednesday.
ACC Network will air the 8 p.m. game, for which a limited number of tickets remain available.
Boston College (12-13, 6-8) is home against NC State (16-8, 7-6) on Sunday night.
UVA had won six straight over BC before losing 60-53 at Conte Forum on Jan. 7. The Eagles closed the game on a 15-3 run.