Virginia vs. North Carolina: Cavaliers squander 11-point lead in loss

North Carolina forward Justin Knox blocks the shot of Virginia guard Mustapha Farrakhan during the first half.
North Carolina forward Justin Knox blocks the shot of Virginia guard Mustapha Farrakhan during the first half. (Steve Helber/ap)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 11:14 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - In retrospect, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett could have drawn up the last-minute play for any of his three shooting guards. None, he noted following the Cavaliers' 62-56 loss Saturday to North Carolina, was too terribly accurate during the second half.

But rather than choose senior guard Mustapha Farrakhan or freshman guard K.T. Harrell - the team's top two (healthy) leading scorers - to take the shot following a timeout with 28.8 seconds to play and Virginia trailing by two points, the first option of the play Bennett designed was to find freshman guard Joe Harris.

Entering the day, Harris had shot 42.2 percent from three-point range. Just four days earlier, he had made 5 of 6 shots from beyond the arc in a win over Howard. As the Cavaliers (10-6, 1-1 ACC) broke from their huddle exiting the timeout, junior guard Sammy Zeglinski patted Harris twice on the chest, a muted vote of confidence.

Harris "has got a real quick release," Bennett said. "That's actually why I called it for him. I thought he could get it off."

That Virginia faced a deficit then was an indictment of the Cavaliers' offensive consistency. Virginia shot 53.6 percent in the first half and 26.1 percent in the second half. Senior forward Will Sherrill said the Tar Heels did a better job after the intermission of disrupting Virginia's passing lanes and denying wing reversals.

But more crucially, Sherrill noted, the Cavaliers grew stagnant. Harris said they grew less aggressive. Farrakhan said they weren't themselves.

Whatever transpired, it contributed to Virginia fumbling away an 11-point lead. Defensively, the Cavaliers made the necessary adjustments against a North Carolina squad that entered the game averaging 75.3 possessions per contest. There were 64 possessions in Saturday's game.

It took the Tar Heels 11 minutes 7 seconds to tally their first 26 points. They scored 36 points the rest of the game. As the contest progressed, its pace increasingly favored Virginia.

"When we got all those stops consecutively in the second half we could not capitalize offensively," Bennett said.

With senior forward Mike Scott out with an ankle injury, the Cavaliers' front-court rotation was limited to four players, three of which played with foul trouble throughout the second half. North Carolina (11-4, 1-0) made 17 of 22 free throws in the second half and slowly crept back into contention.

Freshman forward Akil Mitchell fouled out of the game with 2:27 remaining, and North Carolina forward Justin Knox made both ensuing free throws to provide the Tar Heels a two-point lead. North Carolina attempted 27 free throws Saturday; Virginia attempted 12.

"We usually don't get a lot of respect from the officials anyway, just being Virginia," Sherrill said. "Against more established teams like Duke and Carolina, they usually get the benefit of the doubt. I mean, you guys saw the game, so I don't know. I don't want to say anything that will get me in trouble."

Out of the timeout with 28.8 seconds to play, Harris burst through screens set by Farrakhan and Sherrill. Typically, Harris said, he's thinking "shot" coming off a screen. This time, he wasn't.

Less than a minute earlier, North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes had "come out of nowhere" to block a jump shot attempt by Harrell, Harris said. He could not shake that thought from his psyche. Harris caught the ball beyond the three-point line with 20.2 seconds on the game clock, saw Tar Heels guard Justin Watts charging, pump-faked and dribbled toward the top of the key.

"He [shoots] it every time in practice," said sophomore guard Jontel Evans, who ended up missing a layup on that possession. "I was kind of surprised that he didn't take it. You live and you learn from that. Next time I'll bet he takes it with complete confidence."

Afterward, Harris said his missed opportunity was all he could think about. He said he regretted not taking the shot, in part because of the faith Bennett had offered in mandating the ball go to him in the first place.

There are many lessons the Cavaliers will learn from Saturday's loss, but as they venture deeper into ACC play, perhaps none will resonate more than how to handle even the briefest moments of doubt.

"I had a little space there for a slight second," Harris said. "That's when I should have pulled the trigger."

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