How UNC’s offense, one of the nation’s best, went missing at Virginia

UNC's Berry talks turnovers after loss to Virginia

University of North Carolina point guard Joel Berry says first half turnovers put the Tar Heels in the hole in dealing with Virginia's slowdown offense.
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University of North Carolina point guard Joel Berry says first half turnovers put the Tar Heels in the hole in dealing with Virginia's slowdown offense.

The last time North Carolina had as much difficulty scoring as it did on Monday night during a 53-43 defeat at Virginia, head coach Roy Williams was in his first year as an assistant under Dean Smith. There was no shot clock. No 3-point line, either.

The last time the Tar Heels had as much difficulty scoring was Feb. 24, 1979: a 47-40 loss at Duke. It’s remembered as “the stall game,” in which the Tar Heels held possession for so long during the first half that they entered halftime trailing 7-0.

UNC was not, in fact, shut out in the first half Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena. And yet for one of the best offensive teams in the country – and one of the best in Williams’ 14 seasons as the Tar Heels’ head coach – it might’ve felt something like that 7-0 halftime deficit did back in ’79.

The Tar Heels didn’t have many chances back then, 38 years ago at Duke. They didn’t have many at Virginia, either, the way the Cavaliers made UNC miserable for 40 minutes. It was ugly in the beginning for UNC, which committed 12 first-half turnovers – which already were more than its average.

Video: Roy Williams’ post game comments following Tar Heels’ loss to Cavaliers: “This is a pretty dog gone tough league”

And it was ugly late, too, for the No. 5 Tar Heels (25-6, 13-4 ACC), who made but one shot during the final nine minutes while Virginia turned a close game into one long decided by the final buzzer. UNC during the past two weeks had played so well, so often, but on Monday the result wasn’t so much about the Tar Heels.

It was about the No. 23 Cavaliers (20-9, 10-7), and what they did defensively to make one of the nation’s best offenses look more inept than it ever had this season. Virginia double-teamed in the post, as usual. And the Cavaliers were just as relentless on the perimeter, where they especially hounded UNC junior Justin Jackson.

“It’s the ACC,” Williams said afterward, simply, explaining how his team could go from the way it played in its previous three games to this. “... We can stink it up one night and then we can play like great balls of fire the next night, and so can the other teams.”

Indeed, Williams’ team didn’t play well. Its 12 first-half turnovers – which came off of errant dribbles and errant passes and a general mismanagement of Virginia’s half-court pressure – led to 18 Virginia points.

And the Tar Heels especially faltered late and throughout the second half, when they made only 27.6 percent of their attempts from the field. Williams, though, made it clear enough afterward: This wasn’t his team giving a game away as much as it was the Cavaliers seizing it.

Under Tony Bennett, now in his eighth year at Virginia, the Cavaliers have built a reputation on their dogged, determined defense. This, though, took it to a different level, with the Cavaliers pressuring UNC well out on the perimeter, and often precluding the Tar Heels from passing inside.

On the other end, Virginia did what it does. Which is to say it slowed the pace to a grind.

Bennett acknowledged the obvious afterward on Monday. He knows what people say: That the Cavaliers play ugly, that they’re painful to watch, that their preferred style is an affront to anyone who appreciates the aesthetic beauty of the sport.

Bennett has heard it all and yet he said, “That’s the only way we’re going to beat a team like Carolina.”

Virginia tried to do the same thing nine days earlier at the Smith Center, where UNC made it look easy – as easy as it can look against the Cavaliers – in a 65-41 victory. The difference on Monday was this: Virginia made 10 3-pointers – eight more than it did in its loss at UNC, and the shooting success (though Virginia still only shot 32.2 percent, overall) more often allowed it to set its defense.

And that – the defense – was the other main difference. It was good in Chapel Hill. It was great on Monday.

Virginia held Jackson, an ACC Player of the Year candidate who has become a sure-thing to make first-team All-ACC, to seven points. Those were the fewest he’d scored since he had seven during a victory against Tennessee on Dec. 11 – and that was also the last time Jackson didn’t score in double-figures.

“He was just on my hip at all times,” Jackson said of London Perrantes, the Virginia point guard who defended Jackson on Monday. “There was no – there was not many times where I was separated from him. So he did a great job of staying on me, making everything as tough as possible.”

As Joel Berry put it, though, the Cavaliers “just pretty much did that with everybody.”

Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard, had little room to maneuver around the Cavaliers’ defense. The passing lanes to the inside were all jammed up. And when the Tar Heels did find themselves with possession on the interior, Virginia swarmed around Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and others.

Berry, with 12 points, was the only UNC player who scored in double-figures. Defensively, meanwhile, the Tar Heels labored on the perimeter against the likes of Kyle Guy, who made five of his seven 3-point attempts and finished with 17 points, and Perrantes, who finished with 13 and made three 3s of his own.

Nobody at UNC had ever been part of a game like this. Nobody who has played at UNC during the past 35 years had been part of such a futile night on offense, either. Not only were the Tar Heels’ 43 points their fewest in 38 years, they were also fewer than UNC’s scoring output in 30 halves this season.

UNC scored more than 50 points in three of its four halves against N.C. State. It scored at least 46 points in both of its halves against Florida State, which has often been known for its defense under coach Leonard Hamilton.

On Monday the Tar Heels scored their 43rd point on a Berry free throw with about 2½ minutes remaining. They didn’t score again, and to find a night of comparable offensive fecklessness you had to go back to when UNC didn’t score at all in the first half at Duke nearly 40 years ago.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter