When it was over Brice Johnson sat in front of his locker and stared ahead with a blank expression, the disappointment playing on a reel inside of his head, a play here or there that could have changed the outcome of North Carolina’s 79-74 defeat at Virginia.
“I just feel like I didn’t play well,” the senior forward said inside his team’s emptying locker room on Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “That’s all. I just feel like I didn’t play well. It hurts because we were right there.
“Just a couple plays away from winning the game. We just couldn’t do it.”
The seventh-ranked Tar Heels (23-6, 12-4 ACC) weren’t without chances on Saturday night. They had plenty of those, with No. 3 Virginia (22-6, 11-5) missing nine of its final 10 shots from the field.
And yet every time it looked like UNC might make a move – every time it looked like the Tar Heels might have possession with a chance to cut into Virginia’s lead – something happened. They’d fail to secure a rebound. Or, after securing one, it’d trickle away out of bounds.
That’s what happened with 34 seconds to play, with the Cavaliers leading 74-69. UNC, clinging to hope, had called a timeout moments earlier to discuss which player to foul.
Then the Tar Heels fouled who they wanted, Virginia’s Devon Hall, and he went to the free throw line and missed the front end of a one and one.
Johnson jumped up and secured the rebound. And then fell to the court, with no one around him, while the ball went out of bounds to the Cavaliers. It was an encapsulation of the game for UNC, which came close on Saturday night but not quite close enough.
The Tar Heels never could break through – they could never “get over the hump,” coach Roy Williams said. And to him, the reason went back to a point he has often made when discussing the shortcomings of his senior-laden, veteran team.
“It’s all those little things that made them end up with more points than we did,” Williams said, speaking specifically about his team’s failure to rebound in the game’s defining moments. “But I thought the biggest factor of the game to me is that they had played with a high level of intensity, from my point of view, on both offense and defense.
“I think they were the actors and we were the reactors all night.”
Williams has shared that criticism several times this season. Like after UNC’s defeat at Louisville earlier this month, or after another defeat, one game later, at Notre Dame.
That might have been the most disappointing aspect of defeat for UNC Saturday night: in moments it slipped back into habits, and a familiar theme – lack of intensity, or effort, or want-to – reemerged after two thorough performances in consecutive victories against Miami and N.C. State.
“We’re a little upset at the way we played,” said senior guard Marcus Paige, who finished with 13 points, including a 3-pointer that cut Virginia’s lead to 77-74 with 17 seconds left. “They were the more aggressive team. It almost seemed like they wanted this more and that’s upsetting.
“But we’re still where we want to be, and we just take care of business (our last) two games, we’ll be fine.”
Paige was referencing UNC’s place atop the ACC standings. A victory at Virginia would have been a significant accomplishment amid the Tar Heels’ pursuit of the ACC’s regular-season championship.
The game on Saturday provided UNC with something of a measuring stick. The result: the Tar Heels, led by a career-high 21 points from Joel Berry, weren’t quite good enough against the Cavaliers, who have finished in first place in the ACC in each of the past two seasons.
The Tar Heels didn’t force a quicker tempo against Virginia, which prefers a slower, more methodical pace, and UNC finished with just two fast-break points. UNC didn’t successfully defend Malcolm Brogdon, the Cavaliers’ senior guard and ACC Player of the Year candidate.
Brogdon finished with 26 points. And once again, an opposing team limited Johnson, UNC’s best offensive option, in critical moments. Johnson faded down the stretch of a loss to Duke. Against Virginia, which double-teamed him through the second half, he didn’t make a shot from the field during the final 18 1/2 minutes.
But, Williams said, “Because we didn’t get it to Brice didn’t kill our offense. We all want him to get more shots – there’s no question about that.”
Williams appeared less upset about Johnson’s lack of involvement than he was about those “little things” that turned into bigger things. The lack of defensive rebounding late. The inability to follow a made shot with a defensive stop – a sequence that could have created momentum.
“It hurts a lot because we just couldn’t quite convert,” Paige said. “We’d get a stop, something would happen. The ball would get deflected out of bounds – we just couldn’t come up with it. In a (low) possession game like this, that was the story.”