By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — They’ve suffered through some off nights defensively, but the Virginia Cavaliers generally have excelled at that end of the court this season. Opponents are shooting 39.6 percent from the floor and averaging only 58.4 points per game against UVA.

On offense, though, Virginia’s struggles are putting its postseason prospects in peril. In each of its past three games, UVA has failed to reach the 50-point mark. The Wahoos won the first of those games, edging Wake Forest 49-47 at John Paul Jones Arena, but they scored 41 points Monday night in the second, a one-sided loss to Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.

The Hoos scored only 16 first-half points in Blacksburg, and their shooting woes continued Saturday in a 54-44 loss to 10th-ranked North Carolina in front of a sellout crowd at JPJ. After missing 25 of 30 shots from the floor, Virginia again went into the break with 16 points. The Cavaliers were more productive in the second half, but they finished the game with their worst field-goal percentage—27.6—since Dec. 4, 2013.

Jordan Minor (5 for 9) was the only UVA player to make at least half of his shots from the floor. The rest of the Cavaliers were a combined 11 for 49 (22.4 percent). For the game, Virginia was 2 for 14 from 3-point range.

And yet, despite all the ugly statistics, the Hoos trailed the UNC by only five points with two minutes left, and they had two excellent opportunities to pull closer.

UVA (20-8, 11-6) didn’t capitalize on either one. First, sophomore guard Isaac McKneely attempted a 3-pointer that would have cut the Tar Heels’ lead to two. McKneely’s shot was off the mark, but Minor grabbed the rebound and was fouled.

Minor went to the line for a one-and-one that could have cut Virginia’s deficit to three, but he missed his first attempt, and Carolina scored at the other end to make it 49-42 with 1:30 left. A jumper by UVA freshman Elijah Gertrude made it 49-44 with 1:04 to play, but the Heels hit 5 of 6 from the line in the final minute to hold off Virginia.

North Carolina (21-6, 13-3), which leads the ACC, won in Charlottesville for the first time since Feb. 25, 2012. The Heels had lost eight straight to Virginia at JPJ.

“It’s just hard to win on the road, especially for our program here,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said, “and the reason being is because Virginia is one of the better teams and programs in the country. And so we’re very thankful and fortunate enough that we were put in a position to be able to be successful and we were able to finish it out today.”

Jordan Minor (22)

The loss was the third in four games for UVA, which remains third in the ACC. Head coach Tony Bennett praised his team’s effort but noted that the Hoos “were smart some of the time, most of the time, but not enough of the time.”

For the season, only two Cavaliers are averaging more than 10 points per game: senior guard Reece Beekman (13.8) and McKneely (12.2). Sophomore forward Ryan Dunn (8.4 ppg), an elite defender and shot-blocker, had two points Saturday and hasn’t scored more than eight in a game since Jan. 27.

Graduate transfer Jake Groves, a 6-foot-9 forward, hit 16 of 22 shots from beyond the arc during a recent five-game stretch, but he’s totaled two points in his past three games. Sophomore swingman Andrew Rohde, who’s started 27 games this season, scored three points Saturday. He’s averaging 4.5 points per game and shooting 30.2 percent from the floor.

Virginia’s most proficient 3-point shooters are McKneely and Groves, and opponents have prioritized limiting their open looks from the perimeter.

“Offensively, yeah, it’s hard,” Bennett. “We were a little better in the second half. But [opponents are] really keying in on a few guys and really playing off of some others. We tried to get some more movement, and some of those shots, we need to finish and knock them down, but you just keep trying to get quality looks and work hard.”

UNC was fully aware of the Cavaliers’ limitations on offense, and “we tried to defend them in a way where we can take away those 3-point shots from their best 3-point shooters and make them put the ball on the floor,” Hubert Davis said, “and then other guys that do a better job of attacking the basket and scoring in the paint, make them be efficient from beyond 3-point range.”

Carolina’s strategy paid off Saturday, but the Hoos’ defensive prowess kept the game from becoming a blowout. UNC, which came in averaging 79.8 points per game, shot only 32 percent from the floor. Virginia limited senior guard RJ Davis, the conference’s leading scorer, to 12 points. Davis, guarded primarily by Beekman, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, missed 13 of 14 shots from the floor.

“I just tried to make it difficult for him on every catch,” Beekman said. “We know he’s a great player, great shooter, so I just wanted to make it hard for him throughout the whole game.”

Virginia defended Carolina’s All-ACC center, 6-foot-11 Armando Bacot, well too, and his 10 points were four fewer than his average. The Cavaliers were less successful against guard Cormac Ryan, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame. The 6-foot-5 Ryan made a season-high six 3-pointers, five of them in the first half. He finished with 18 points, the first time he’s led UNC in scoring this season.

“Against Virginia, you’re gonna have to knock down some shots,” Hubert Davis said, “and he was the only one that consistently was able to shoot the ball from 3.”

Elijah Gertrude (12)

The Cavaliers showed little fight in the second half of their dispiriting loss to Virginia Tech. They battled to the end against UNC.

“I would probably say we stood together as a team better than we did on Monday night,” Minor said. “Guys on the bench, in the huddle, we were encouraging each other, although our shots weren’t falling, [to not] let our defense slip.”

The 6-foot-8 Minor, a graduate transfer from Merrimack, was often matched against the taller Bacot, but he never backed down. Minor contributed 12 points and 10 rebounds, his first double-double as a Cavalier. He grabbed a game-high six offensive rebounds.

“I thought Jordan did a good job for us,” Bennett said. “He gave us everything you could battling against obviously who he had to battle against.”

Beekman shot poorly—4 for 14 from the floor—but he supplemented his 10 points with seven rebounds, five assists, one blocked shot and one steal.

Gertrude, in only his third appearance in February, provided a spark off the bench with his athleticism. The 6-foot-4 guard played a season-high 18 minutes and 59 seconds and finished with six points, three rebounds and two steals.

“He was getting stops on the defensive end, making plays on the offensive end as well,” Beekman said. “He’s young, so he’s still learning, but I feel like he gave us good energy and minutes today, and I feel like he’ll grow from this.”

Bennett said Gertrude has “got to keep staying ready in that spot, but it was good to see him get that experience, and you see those bursts of athleticism and touching the paint and grabbing some rebounds.”

Gertrude didn’t shoot well—1 for 7 from the floor and 4 for 8 from the line—but it was that kind of day for UVA, which will play back-to-back road games before closing the regular season at JPJ against Georgia Tech on March 9.

Next up is a Wednesday night date with Boston College (15-12, 6-12) at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass. UVA and BC will meet at 9 o’clock in a game to air on ESPNU.

This is Bennett’s 15th season at Virginia, where his record is 361-133, and virtually all of his previous teams have had more offensive options than his current one. Still, these Cavaliers put up 73 points against Florida, 84 against Syracuse and, more recently, 80 against Florida State, so they’re capable of more than they’ve shown in their past three games.

“That’s the challenge right now,” Bennett said, “but we can’t let up on the defensive end, because there’s still meaningful games left.”

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