Luke DeCock

DeCock: Virginia still a cut above rest of ACC

UNC coach Roy Williams tries to direct a comeback by his team late in the second half against Virginia at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels fell 75-64 to Virginia.
UNC coach Roy Williams tries to direct a comeback by his team late in the second half against Virginia at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels fell 75-64 to Virginia. rwillett@newsobserver.com

All of the attention Virginia’s first 19 wins garnered just didn’t sit right with Tony Bennett. Some coaches would kill to have ESPN bring its traveling road show to their campus, their gym, as ESPN did in Charlottesville on Saturday.

Bennett was less than thrilled.

“There was a lot of attention, hype, ‘College GameDay’ and all that,” Bennett said. “It was a bit intoxicating. Not my cup of tea, to be honest with you. But it was great for our program.”

There was also the matter of Duke’s late comeback against Virginia, which took a great deal of the luster off the occasion and cast doubt upon the Cavaliers’ ACC preeminency, which to that point looked preordained.

Whatever doubts surfaced quickly fled Monday night, as Virginia’s authoritative performance at North Carolina thoroughly reestablished the Cavaliers’ bona fides. A somber Roy Williams was left shaking his head at the magnitude of the 75-64 defeat, his Tar Heels comprehensively outplayed in the second half after holding a one-point halftime lead.

“Not a lot to say, guys,” Williams said. “They kicked our butts.”

After a weekend that upended the top of the ACC standings – Duke’s win at Virginia, North Carolina’s overtime loss at Louisville, Notre Dame’s loss at Pittsburgh – normalcy was restored in Chapel Hill.

Virginia is who we thought it was, the five-minute collapse against Duke notwithstanding. North Carolina had a chance to impose a detour with a win Monday, but the road to the ACC regular-season title still runs through Charlottesville.

But Virginia did what Virginia does, and it was way, way too much for the Tar Heels. Down 33-32 after Kennedy Meeks’ tip-in at the halftime buzzer hung on the back of the rim before dropping through – and victimized by one of the worst foul calls of this generation, a charge drawn by Brice Johnson while he was moving in multiple dimensions – the Cavaliers never looked back.

Both teams were operating on a mere 48 hours of rest – like next season’s epidemic of Friday night football games, part of the new reality augured by the ACC’s latest money-spinning deal with ESPN – but the Tar Heels looked like by far the more tired team (and Williams would indeed relay a long tale of injury and illness woe afterward).

Not that it may have mattered. After some erratic moments in the first half against both Duke and North Carolina, the second half Monday was a clinic in Virginia basketball.

The Cavaliers shut down Marcus Paige almost completely, his stats padded by a late North Carolina surge after the outcome was decided. Meeks, apparently nursing a triple-digit fever, had six turnovers and three shots blocked. At the other end, meanwhile, the Cavaliers were relentlessly efficient, with four players in double figures and the ability to create and make open jump shots nearly at will.

When the Cavaliers play like that, not many teams can keep up, on the court or in the standings.

Which is why there’s now a mad scramble for position farther down the ACC standings among 8-2 Notre Dame and 6-2 Louisville and three teams with three losses, the Tar Heels now among them. Virginia is unquestionably the team to beat, even after Saturday’s loss.

Even after last season, that’s still a hard concept to grasp at times, in a league with modern basketball gentry like North Carolina and Duke and Louisville and Syracuse. Asked whether the Cavaliers were getting their due, Bennett laughed.

“You should have been there for ‘GameDay,’” Bennett said. “There was a lot of due.”

Virginia, having been humbled amid all the hype, authoritatively reestablished itself Monday as the ACC’s team to beat.

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