Luke DeCock

North Carolina runs into tougher team as Virginia bounces back

Tony Bennett had barely gotten started with his press conference and was extolling Kyle Guy’s ability to hit big shots – including the two in the final two minutes Monday that sunk North Carolina for good – when he glanced up to his left to see one of the television monitors in the Smith Center press room, tuned to ESPN, showing highlights of Virginia’s loss to Duke on Saturday.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett directs his team on defense during the first half against North Carolina on Monday, February 11, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“Why are they putting that on here?” Bennett joked, with probably a bit more mirth than he felt. “Come on, we don’t need to have that on in here.”

Even after a 69-61 comeback win that cemented Virginia’s position as one of the ACC’s two best teams and dealt a blow to the Tar Heels’ hopes of catching Duke in the process, the Cavaliers are going to spend the rest of the season trying to make up for that loss, probably in vain. The highlights were a cruel reminder of that, just as Virginia recovering 48 hours later to recover from a deficit in the final four minutes against North Carolina is testament to the fact that even if it’s a one-team league at the top, there are still two teams ahead of everyone else.

Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite (25) defends North Carolina’s Coby White (2) during the first half on Monday, February 11, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

Where the Tar Heels are capable but erratic, whether that’s making clutch shots or locking in on defense, Virginia is metronomically consistent. Monday was an effective demonstration of the Cavaliers’ ability to lock down – the late switch of DeAndre Hunter onto Coby White threw North Carolina’s offense into complete disarray – and find ways to get open shots when it matters.

Just as Virginia broke Guy free for an open 3 at the end of the Duke game in Cameron, the Cavaliers were able to get Guy open for what would have been a 4-point play, if Guy had finished the free throw, by lulling Kenny Williams to sleep. Bennett seems to have some plays at the bottom of his bag he saves for the final moments; if the Cavaliers can keep it close (and they couldn’t against Duke in Charlottesville or, for that matter, UMBC) they’ll find a way to give themselves a chance at the end.

“That’s just the way we’re wired,” Guy said.

For a long time, it seemed like Virginia wouldn’t be able to keep it close. With the Smith Center as raucous as it ever gets in the non-Duke category – Michael Jordan was in attendance, not to be outdone by LeBron James’ presence in Charlottesville on Saturday – North Carolina dominated the second half, leading by as many as seven with nine minutes to play.

Former Tar Heels, from left, Mitch Kupchak, Michael Jordan and Buzz Peterson were in attendance for North Carolina’s game against Virginia on Monday, February 11, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

It was very nearly more. White had a team-high 17 and he was fractions of a second away from 22. His breakaway at the first-half buzzer was wiped out by a Virginia shot-clock violation milliseconds before White had possession – the correct call, albeit a rule that needs fixing so the defense isn’t penalized by its own success – and he made up for his own inattention at the end of the shot clock in the second half by throwing in a 30-footer, only for it to be found on his fingertips as the shot clock expired by margins so fine the officials had to cross the court to check on ESPN’s monitor. (That ESPN highlight went Bennett’s way.)

Then Cam Johnson stepped on Hunter’s foot and missed almost four minutes of game time nursing an injured left ankle, with Nassir Little already done for the night with the same injury to his right ankle, Hunter was switched onto White, and the game slipped away as the Tar Heels missed 16 of their final 20 shots including the last eight, although a few of those at the end were out of total desperation.

Roy Williams had nothing good to say about his team afterward, a patina of disgust about him over the way his team let the game slip away. North Carolina had a chance Monday, but couldn’t finish the job, just as N.C. State couldn’t and Virginia Commonwealth couldn’t, the only other teams Virginia has trailed in the second half.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams reacts to a foul against his team in the first half against Virginia on Monday, February 11, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“Against good teams like this, great teams like this, you can’t sag, you can’t take a play off,” Kenny Williams said. “We’ve got to be tougher in the late-game situations. … I wouldn’t hesitate to say that we’re a championship team. I think we are. They out-toughed us tonight.”

An earlier version of this column did not clearly attribute the preceding quotation to Kenny Williams.

There’s still a path to the regular-season title for the Tar Heels, but it probably requires beating Duke twice. Virginia may spend the rest of the season chasing those Duke losses, but North Carolina will spend the rest of the season chasing this one.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.