There was a point in the second half of Virginia’s 54-51 loss Saturday to North Carolina, sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said, when he was sitting next to fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott on the bench and was struck by a sense of déjà vu. By that point, both players were saddled with four fouls, and their effectiveness – not to mention their availability – was limited accordingly.
“When we get in foul trouble, we’ve just got to figure out different ways to play,” Mitchell said.
Virginia Coach Tony Bennett opted for large stretches to go with a four-guard lineup anchored by freshman forward Darion Atkins, who also was dealing with foul trouble. For a short period of time, Bennett even implemented a zone defense.
“There’s not much else we could do,” Bennett said.
But in the end, North Carolina’s superior size overwhelmed the Cavaliers. Tar Heels forwards Tyler Zeller (20 points, six rebounds), John Henson (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Harrison Barnes (seven points, nine rebounds) all made their mark. Zeller’s dunk with 13.3 seconds remaining put the game just out of reach.
“We had to go small most of the game, and they’re just too big for us to be going small,” junior guard Jontel Evans said. “They took advantage of it.”
With two regular season games remaining, Virginia holds an 8-6 record in ACC play and remains in contention for a top four seed (and thus, a first round bye) in the conference tournament. But the Cavaliers likely will need at least a split of those contests (vs. Florida State, at Maryland) to earn such a distinction. Doable? Sure. A lock? No way.
1) Joe Harris. If Bennett plans to hand out an award at the end of the season for the team’s toughest player, my guess is Harris is the frontrunner by a fair margin. The sophomore guard continues to play with a broken left (non-shooting) hand, and Saturday was his most effective performance since suffering the injury two weeks ago. He made 5 of 10 shots from the field (including two three-pointers) and finished with 12 points, five rebounds, three assists, three blocks and zero turnovers. His showing against the Tar Heels might have been the most encouraging development to come out of Saturday’s game for the Cavaliers.
“Beforehand, I was kind of using my hand almost as an excuse for myself that, I don’t know, it’s broken so nobody else really expects me to do anything,” Harris said. “I was kind of taking that on myself and not expecting much from myself. So [Saturday] I just kind of had the mind-set of, ‘Forget all that.’ Regardless of having a broken hand or not, I still need to contribute and help the team out.”
2) Ball security. One of the reasons why Virginia was able to remain in closer contention with North Carolina on Saturday than it had two weeks earlier in Chapel Hill was the Cavaliers’ improved control of the ball. Virginia tallied 12 turnovers during its 70-52 loss at North Carolina on Feb. 11. On Saturday, the Cavaliers turned the ball over a season-low four times. No Virginia player recorded more than one turnover. Evans and Harris combined for six assists and no turnovers.
3) Darion Atkins. Much like during Virginia’s trip to Chapel Hill, Saturday’s contest was defined in large part by the Cavaliers’ rampant foul trouble. By halftime, Mitchell and Scott had combined for five fouls. With 12 minutes remaining in the game, both players had picked up four fouls. And though Atkins also dealt with foul trouble most of the afternoon, he ended up the beneficiary of all the time Mitchell and Scott were forced to sit on the bench. Atkins grabbed six rebounds in 18 minutes and did what he could to defend Zeller and Henson in the post. As the game progressed and the fouls mounted, Atkins acknowledged, playing interior defense became increasingly difficult.
“I don’t want to say you had to give up certain shots,” Atkins said, “but you just had to play smart and play to the best of our abilities.”
1) Foul trouble. Scott and Mitchell logged just 10 minutes each in the first half after Scott picked up two early fouls and Mitchell posted three. On the day, Scott was able to play just 22 minutes, a low for him in ACC play this season. He picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Mitchell picked up his fourth foul with 12:38 to play and ended up logging 17 minutes Saturday. The two players combined for six points and eight rebounds, which simply wasn’t enough against a frontcourt as prodigious as North Carolina’s.
Now, one certainly could make the argument that some of the fouls called against both players were a bit questionable. Scott’s fourth foul – an offensive infraction called while Scott was trying to secure a defensive rebound underneath North Carolina’s basket – in particular drew the ire of the John Paul Jones Arena crowd. Bennett said afterward he’d have to look at the game film before offering any public comment on the call. Scott was diplomatic, as well.
“I thought I boxed him out, but I guess I was a little bit too aggressive,” he said.
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said Henson, against whom Scott purportedly committed the foul, “whipped back because there was an elbow in his face. [The officials] went over to see if it was something else, but it wasn’t. I don’t think that [Henson] is that good of an actor, and his face doesn’t run into too many elbows.
“I’m not saying that it was flagrant, but it was a foul. I don’t think that there was any reason to draw a foul there, and you certainly don’t want to draw it with your face on someone’s elbow. That’s not very pleasant.”
2) Defensive breakdowns. Virginia had more than a few of these in the latter part of the second half, but one stands out above the rest. Ahead by one, North Carolina started a possession with roughly 48 seconds remaining in the game. Rather than commit a quick foul to stop the clock and force the Tar Heels to make free throws, Virginia elected to let the possession play out, confident that its defense could make a stop. With the shot clock winding down, North Carolina got the ball to Zeller at the elbow. Zeller pump-faked, and Mitchell left his feet. With an advantage, Zeller dribbled into the lane and scored on a dunk with 13.3 seconds remaining to put the Tar Heels ahead by three.
“We rely on our defense so much,” Evans said. “We’re very confident in our defense. And that last possession, we had a breakdown. Akil left his feet, and [Zeller] went to the basket and got a big two points for his team. I feel if Akil didn’t leave his feet, we’d probably be in here celebrating right now.”
Said Mitchell: “I made a huge mistake there. We work on that all year. I figured the shot clock was running out, so tried to contest the shot and got a little too anxious. He drew me up in the air and made a really good play.”
Said Bennett: “We didn’t have the right kind of anticipation defensively, and they got a couple of dunks at the rim at crucial times. We got lifted on that last one with Zeller. Someone got lifted, and we played the defense to the end of the shot clock and it was a bad breakdown for us. It was very untimely.”
3) Mike Scott. Foul trouble certainly factored into Scott’s ineffectiveness. But putting the fouls aside, Scott still didn’t appear to be in his usual rhythm from the outset Saturday. He entered the day leading the ACC in field goal percentage in conference play (56.6 percent), but shot 3 of 13 from the field. He entered the day averaging 18.8 points per game in ACC play, yet finished Saturday with six points. Those long jump shots that have fallen for Scott so frequently this season missed their mark.
“Maybe he was settling a little bit on the outside,” Bennett said. “I thought he was okay early in the second half when he started driving and was moving with more purpose. And then, boom, he got his third foul and then his fourth foul pretty quick. It was a very interrupted game for him.”
Said Scott: “I was just not on tonight. Most of the shots I took I normally make.”