Luke DeCock

Tar Heel turnaround started with post-Virginia horror flick

North Carolina’s Joel Berry leaves the court with his teammates following the Tar Heels’ 79-74 loss to Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena.
North Carolina’s Joel Berry leaves the court with his teammates following the Tar Heels’ 79-74 loss to Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It wasn’t the typical coach’s desire to polish an opponent’s resume that led Mike Brey to declare that North Carolina had “put it all together.” The Notre Dame coach saw it firsthand during the ACC tournament when the Tar Heels beat Brey’s Irish by 31.

Brey joked that he “misplaced” the film from that game, but it was the film from North Carolina’s last loss that put the Tar Heels in this position, that helped them “put it all together” to the point where they have won eight straight games, and all three of their NCAA tournament games by double digits, with only Notre Dame on Sunday between them and the Final Four.

Watching the video from their loss at Virginia on Feb. 27 turned out to be the wake-up call the Tar Heels had needed all season.

“We watched the film from the Virginia game, and we just realized, we played terrible – terrible! – and we lost by five in Charlottesville,” North Carolina’s Theo Pinson said. “So, we understood if we make those little plays we can be a whole lot better.”

After losing 79-74 at Virginia on a Saturday night, the Tar Heels had Sunday off. A few players went into the Smith Center for treatment or to get a few shots up, but they gathered as a team for the first time before practice on Monday, in the locker room to review the video from the Virginia game.

North Carolina – like any team – does this after every game. Roy Williams controls the remote, and it can take him 40 minutes or more to cover about 20 minutes of clips selected by the coaching staff while grading the previous game.

This session was not materially unlike any of the others that preceded it, even after North Carolina’s other five losses. And yet this one resonated in a very meaningful way with the Tar Heels.

“There were a bunch of little things that hurt us: loose balls, rebounds boxing out, all those little things you need to win against a team like that,” North Carolina’s Justin Jackson said. “Obviously (Malcolm) Brodgon had a good night, (Anthony) Gill had a good night, but it wasn’t as if there were big things that just killed us. It was all those little things they took advantage of that we didn’t. That really opened our eyes.”

You just have to learn the hard way sometimes, that’s just a life lesson. Sometimes things aren’t going to come easy. Once you learn from it, you have to stick with it.

UNC’s Joel Berry

It’s often facile to seek a single turning point in a long season. Any season for any team is in many ways a living thing, with its own life cycle, biorhythms, ebbs and flows. It’s all to easy to point at any one moment and say, “Yes! That was it! That was the moment everything changed!”

Going back to the last game the Tar Heels actually lost seems like too easy a target. It doesn’t take a genius to pick out that game as a demarcation point. And yet the players keep coming back to that video session after the Virginia game.

UNC's Theo Pinson makes a surprise appearance during the Tar Heel's Saturday press conference.

For one thing, time was starting to run short on their season. They put the regular-season title in jeopardy with the loss, with only two games left, one of them at Duke. If not then, when?

“You just have to learn the hard way sometimes, that’s just a life lesson,” Joel Berry said. “Sometimes things aren’t going to come easy. Once you learn from it, you have to stick with it.”

For another, the clips Williams showed that afternoon were as much about Virginia as they were about North Carolina. Williams highlighted a clip of Brogdon breaking up a pass not to show Brogdon’s hustle but to note Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins sprinting end-to-end to help, even though the play never reached him.

“That game was determined by all the little things,” Marcus Paige said. “It wasn’t necessarily defensive lapses or anything. It was just really small things that make the difference between being very good and being elite, and I think we’d all agree Virginia is an elite team.”

Since then, the Tar Heels have won eight straight. They have put it all together. They are three wins away from a national title, and if they can get past Notre Dame, the next team in their way may be Virginia.

Notre Dame basketball head coach Mike Brey jokes about facing North Carolina again after being blown out by the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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