For all the pregame discussion of how North Carolina’s offense would fare against Virginia – and how the Tar Heels would manage offensively in a considerably slower game than they prefer – it was UNC’s defense that was most responsible for the Tar Heels’ 65-41 victory on Saturday night at the Smith Center.
For about a month and a half now, perhaps even longer, 10th-ranked UNC (23-5, 11-3 ACC) has attempted to recapture whatever it had back in November, when it looked like the Tar Heels might just be one of coach Roy Williams’ best defensive teams. Williams said recently, though, that he didn’t necessarily believe his team was as good defensively as the numbers suggested. Even then, he said, he felt something was missing defensively.
Perhaps the Tar Heels are closer to discovering it. They played one of their best defensive halves of the season – and arguably their best defensive half in ACC play – in the first half against the No. 14 Cavaliers (18-8, 8-6). And then UNC played even better defensively in the second half.
By halftime, after UNC held Virginia to 33.3 percent shooting from the field, after Virginia missed all eight of its 3-point attempts, UNC led 34-22. The 12-point margin then was, in effect, larger than such a lead might have been ordinarily, given the Cavaliers’ preference to run down the shot clock and take their time offensively.
The double-digit deficit, though, forced Virginia to play with more urgency. It disrupted the Cavaliers’ comfort.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, remained tenacious after halftime. Virginia missed 15 of its first 17 attempts to start the second half, and toward the end of that futility UNC junior point guard Joel Berry made a long 3-pointer from the top of the key that gave the Tar Heels a 49-29 lead – their largest.
That 20-point lead also represented the largest deficit Virginia had faced all season. Moments later, after a media timeout, it grew even larger after Isaiah Hicks, the UNC junior forward, finished a transition sequence with an authoritative dunk – his third of the game.
That play, in some ways, provided a microcosm of UNC’s victory: The Cavaliers missed shots, failed to rebound and the Tar Heels often used those misses to run in transition and create scoring chances before the Cavaliers had a chance to set up their defense. It happened time and again.
Hicks finished with 10 points and Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, with 13. They were two of UNC’s three players who scored in double figures.
At one point in the second half, Virginia missed 11 consecutive shots from the field. UNC’s lead during that span went from 13 with about 16½ minutes remaining to 23 with about 6½ minutes remaining. The Tar Heels’ lead grew as large as 27 points with less than four minutes to play.
While the Tar Heels won with defense, their offense wasn’t too shabby, either. Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward, scored 18 of his game-high 20 points during the first half, when he made all four of his 3-pointers. Jackson excelled during the first 20 minutes, and did so in front of Kevin Knox, the coveted prospect who had a front-row seat, not far from the UNC bench.
Knox is the Tar Heels’ top recruiting target in the class of 2017. He is similar in some ways to Jackson, and so the better Jackson played, the better it was for the Tar Heels’ recruiting pitch to Knox.
Knox wasn’t the only guest of honor in attendance. UNC welcomed the return of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, who as seniors last season led the Tar Heels to the national championship game. Both players have their jerseys honored in the Smith Center. They were recognized at halftime on Saturday, and UNC gave them framed jerseys.
Once the game resumed after halftime it only became more lopsided in UNC’s favor. The Cavaliers, who made seven of their 30 attempts in the second half, shot 27.8 percent overall. Williams began emptying his bench with about 2½ minutes to play, and the walk-ons entered about about a minute after that. Soon the Tar Heels were celebrating a victory that keeps them alone in first place atop the ACC.