CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland stood beside his locker in a quiet, somber North Carolina locker room on Sunday night, and while he tied his tie he thought about how the Tar Heels went from leading Virginia by eight early in the second half to suffering a listless 61-52 defeat.
I thought we were getting it going, Strickland said, and who didnt after UNC turned its one-point halftime lead into a 36-28 advantage with 16:25 to play?
Few teams ever manage to look all that good offensively against the Cavaliers (11-3, 1-0), who employ a slow-it-down pace on offense, and then follow that up with an aggressive suffocating man-to-man defense. But early in the second half, at least, the Heels were managing making shots, forcing turnovers, creating transition opportunities.
And then, Strickland said, the Heels (10-4, 0-1) just began to make simple mistakes on defense.
They got back into it, they hit big shots, said Strickland, who finished with four points. I dont know. I really dont know how it slipped away from us. We should have definitely won that game.
Strickland wasnt alone in his quest for answers. He and his teammates searched for them in the moments after one of their most puzzling performances of the season.
UNCs other three defeats came by worse margins, and after worse showings than what the Heels provided at John Paul Jones Arena. But rarely had a game gone so badly, so quickly for the Heels.
After UNC built that eight-point lead early in the second half, Virginia outscored the Heels 18-4 during the next seven and a half minutes. It was a run only in the loosest definition of the term, given the Cavaliers propensity to exercise patience while searching for the perfect shot.
At times, they found such a shot after the Heels failed to switch on a screen, leaving a player open on the perimeter. Virginia scored the first points of its surge after such a lapse, and UNC coach Roy Williams described as just silliness the sequence that left Virginias Joe Harris open for a 3-point shot at the top of the key.
You cant say youre young anymore, Williams said. Weve played 13 games.
Now the Heels have played 14 games, and the most troubling aspect of the one against Virginia might have been that it came after UNCs finest performance of the season, which came last week in its 79-73 victory against UNLV. From start to finish in that game, the Tar Heels played with a sense of purpose, and with energy.
All of that seemed lacking on Sunday night. But why?
I dont know man, honestly, said James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward who finished with 10 points. I wish I knew. I dont know.
After losing the lead for good, the Heels did manage to make things interesting in the final moments if only for a short while. Virginia led by seven with about seven minutes to play but Reggie Bullock, back from a concussion he suffered that kept him out of the victory against UNLV, made a 3-pointer with just under four minutes to play.
After a Virginia miss, Bullock rebounded missed shot from Strickland and put it back in to cut the Cavaliers lead to 51-50. That, though, was as close as UNC came.
The Tar Heels, who shot 37.3 percent, didnt score again until 22 seconds remained, and by then Virginia had built an 11-point lead.
Every time we have a Carolina jersey on, people try to give us their best shot, said Bullock, who led the Heels with 22 points. And thats exactly what UVA did they were trying to be tough with us down low in the post. They were throwing traps at our big men.
And we were just turning it over and just mental stuff that we work on every day in practice.
For long stretches on Sunday, Virginia wasnt all that sharp, either. The Cavaliers committed 11 turnovers during the first 22 minutes, but then didnt turn it over once during the final 18 minutes.
Bullock provided a list when asked what changed after his team took that eight-point lead early in the second half.
[Not] sharing the ball, he said. Making mental mistakes. Not getting to the boards. Not finding shooters in transition. Things that we work on every day in practice, and we just didnt do it in crunch time when we needed it most.
The Tar Heels lost their ACC opener for just the third time in Williams 10 seasons at UNC. Afterward, he sounded as confused and dismayed as any of his players when asked why UNCs best game of the season, which had come just eight days ago, didnt carry over.
ACC basketball, on the road and all those are good excuses, Williams said. But we just didnt freaking play.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter