Roy Williams found reason to fear this, the second of consecutive road games in three days, and one at Virginia, no less – one of the more difficult places to play in the ACC. Williams, the North Carolina coach, was concerned with his team’s fatigue and concerned, more, with all the challenges that come with playing against the Cavaliers.
Nine days earlier, the Tar Heels made it look easy – as easy as any team can make it look, at least – during a 24-point victory against Virginia. The Cavaliers’ 53-43 victory at John Paul Jones Arena on Monday night, though, little resembled what took place in the Smith Center back on Feb. 18.
Some aspects of these two games were the same. They both lacked aesthetic beauty, though that’s often the case when the Cavaliers are involved. And Virginia trudged through both games amid long, painful-to-watch dry spells on offense, ones in which the Cavaliers punished the rim with their inaccuracy.
There were some key differences, though, between what happened in Chapel Hill earlier this month and what happened on Monday. For one, the Cavaliers made but two of their 20 3-point attempts during that 65-41 loss against UNC in the teams’ first meeting. Virginia on Monday made 10 of its 23 3-pointers, and Kyle Guy, the freshman, man-bunned guard, accounted for five of those. Guy led the Cavaliers with 17 points.
The second difference between UNC’s 24-point victory and its 10-point defeat: turnovers.
The Tar Heels committed 14 of them, but 12 of those came in the first half, when Virginia built a 27-23 halftime lead. UNC’s proclivity for giving the ball away – and Virginia’s talent for simply taking it away – made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Tar Heels to discover any kind of offensive rhythm during the first 20 minutes.
And yet another problem emerged late for UNC: It simply went cold, and then couldn’t come up with defensive stops on the other end. The Tar Heels went more than four minutes at the end of regulation without making a shot from the field. They missed 11 of their final 12 shots from the field, as well, and didn’t mount any kind of comeback effort when circumstances grew dire.
The Tar Heels with a victory could have clinched an outright ACC regular-season championship. They’ve already clinched at least a share of it, and they will enter the ACC tournament next week in Brooklyn as the No. 1 seed. Even so, UNC wants to finish alone in first place atop the ACC, and a victory would have guaranteed that.
Instead the Tar Heels shot 35 percent and scored their fewest points of the season. The stage for UNC’s defeat was set during the first 20 minutes.
The Tar Heels’ 23 first-half points were their second-fewest in a half this season at that time, just ahead of the 22 points they scored in a 77-62 loss at Miami on Jan. 28. They followed that with their lowest output for a half this season with just 20 second-half points in the second half.
UNC during the first 20 minutes committed 12 of its 14 turnovers, and those 12 first-half turnovers were more than UNC had in 10 full games.
The turnovers came in a variety of ways. They came when the Cavaliers, as they always do, double-teamed the Tar Heels’ post players on the interior. They came on errant passes, like one that Luke Maye threw that went the other way for an easy Virginia layup.
One of those UNC turnovers came toward the end of the first half, when the Cavaliers pressured Justin Jackson out on the perimeter, beyond the 3-point line. The ball came loose, Virginia’s Jarred Reuter secured it and the turnover led to a pair of London Perrantes free throws.
Perrantes, the Cavaliers senior point guard, often did his best work on the defensive end. He hounded Jackson, relentlessly during the first half, and Jackson, who has emerged as a leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year honors, found room to attempt only three shots from the field before halftime.
The Tar Heels’ 12 first-half turnovers matched the most they’d committed in any of their previous seven games. The Cavaliers often capitalized on those extra possessions, and by halftime they were outscoring UNC 19-5 in points off of turnovers. That was the difference early.
The difference late: The Tar Heels went cold at the worst possible time and then couldn’t find a defensive stop.