North Carolina senior guard Kenny Williams knew that if his team was going to beat No. 4 Virginia on Monday, they’d have to play better defense.
In recent weeks, UNC’s defense had slipped. Against N.C. State and Miami last week, No. 8 UNC gave up 96 and 85 points, the first- and third-most points it had allowed in a game this season. The Tar Heels outscored both teams by scoring 113 against State and 88 against Miami.
But that wasn’t going to happen against a Virginia squad that slows the pace and is among the best defensive teams in the nation.
In the Cavaliers’ 69-61 win on Monday, they showed their defensive prowess, forcing the Tar Heels to shoot 35 percent for the game. Their 61 points was a season low.
The Cavaliers shot 53 percent and U.Va. junior guard Kyle Guy hit a couple of clutch three-pointers in the game’s final two minutes to ice it.
Williams, who was guarding Guy, took the blame.
“It was me,” Williams said. “You just can’t take a play off. That’s how Guy got open. I just wasn’t as locked in as I was the whole game... You just can’t take one single second off because that might be the second he beats you.”
The loss snaps a seven-game winning streak for the Tar Heels, which included a road win against then-No. 15 Louisville and a home win against then-No. 10 Virginia Tech. But U.Va. is a different animal.
The Cavaliers have only two losses, both to Duke. Their defense suffocates opponents and they have beaten the Tar Heels in their last four meetings.
The Tar Heels seemed to lose momentum after referees waved off a near halfcourt heave from UNC freshman guard Coby White late in the second half. The score was tied at 59 with 3:29 left in the game, and the bucket would have given the Tar Heels the lead. But the officials said the ball was still on White’s fingers as the shot clock expired.
“I feel like if we had taken the lead, it was going to given us a lot of momentum, so I feel like that hurt a little bit,” UNC sophomore forward Garrison Brooks said. “But we could have come back and got a stop and we didn’t do that.”
Here are three takeaways from the game:
1. U.Va. outplayed UNC in the final few minutes
The Tar Heels went on a 25-8 run in the second half and took a seven-point lead with about eight minutes left in the game. They had finally found their rhythm after struggling in the first half.
But the Cavaliers didn’t have a single turnover in the final 12 minutes of the game. They also hit seven of their last eight shots, while the Tar Heels missed 10 of their last 11, including eight shots in the last 51 seconds.
U.Va. ended the game on a 21-6 run.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to say that we’re a championship team,” Kenny Williams said. “I think we are. They just out-toughed us. They did what they wanted to do better than we did what we wanted to do.”
The Tar Heels haven’t been in many close games this season. But in the last two games it has come down to just a few possessions. It took the Tar Heels hitting some big time three-pointers to beat the Hurricanes, but they could not get it done against the Wahoos.
“I think they’re defense got stronger,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of what changed. “We took a couple of rushed shots, didn’t make shots.”
“I think, again, 53 percent for them and 35 for us is a big part of the tale, too.”
2. U.Va.’s defense was the real deal
The Cavaliers’ “Pack line” defense makes it difficult for teams to score on drives by packing the lane and double teaming the post. It forces teams to shoot and settle for the 3. So in order for the Tar Heels to score, they either had to score easy points off turnovers, or knock down their 3’s.
The Tar Heels didn’t do that. In the second half, they were 3-for-15 from 3 and finished the game 9-for-30, which is 30 percent. Against Miami, the Tar Heels were 13-for-26 from 3.
The Cavaliers made it difficult for the Tar Heels all night. Senior forward Luke Maye, who was named ACC Player of the Week after averaging 25.5 points and nine rebounds in the last two games, was held to four points. Freshman guard Coby White, who was named ACC Freshman of the Week, was 6 of 19 from the floor.
UNC missed twice as many shots as U.Va. The Tar Heels missed 42 shots, while the Cavaliers missed 21.
“They’re everywhere on the court,” White said. “Anywhere you’re trying to drive, they’re there. They are help side. They’re in (the) gap. They stay in front of the ball. It’s the ideal defense that I feel every team should have.”
UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson, who is the Tar Heels’ best three-point threat, was also off. He was 6 of 14 and 2 of 7 from the three-point line. The only player on the Tar Heels’ roster that shot 50 percent or better was sophomore forward Garrison Brooks, who was 5-for-8 from the floor. He finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds.
3. Tar Heels dealing with injury bug
The Tar Heels are now dealing with multiple injuries to key players. Freshman wing Nassir Little sprained his ankle in the first half and did not return to the game. Little was not available to the media after the game.
Roy Williams said he did not have any more information. The good news was that Little was not wearing a walking boot when he walked out of the locker room.
Johnson, a 6-9, 210-pound wing, turned his left ankle in the second half. His loss clearly hurt the Tar Heels. When he was injured and had to come out, the score was tied at 55. He was in the locker room for four minutes of play and the Tar Heels managed to score only two points in that span.
He returned to the game a few minutes later but wasn’t nearly the same. After the game, he had ice taped around his ankle. Johnson said he’ll be fine moving forward.
The Tar Heels were also without two key reserves in sophomore forward Sterling Manley, who is dealing with a sore knee, and freshman wing Leaky Black, who suffered a sprained left ankle two weeks ago against Georgia Tech.
Manley is expected to return soon. He has dressed out over the last two games and has been limited in practice recently. Black’s return is uncertain.
The multiple injuries means UNC’s bench will have to step up. UNC reserve forward Brandon Robinson had three points off the bench and three rebounds in 18 minutes.
Backup point guard Seventh Woods had two turnovers in three minutes in the first half. He did not play in the second half.