Virginia ran out of breath in the final seven minutes tonight in defense of its Atlantic Coast Conference basketball championship against North Carolina.
The Tar Heels exploited Virginia's fatigue for a 15-1 surge that earned them a 75-69 victory and a berth in the NCAA playoffs March 12 at Raleigh, N.C.
North Carolina will play an at-large entry to be named Sunday, but the Tar Heels will be without all-ACC forward Walter Davis, who suffered a broken finger Friday night and was taken back to Chapel Hill for surgery following the game.
Davis made an appearance in the second half, giving the Heels a psychological lift more than anything else. And Carolina won its 11th straight with its three Olympians - point guard Phil Ford, center Tommy LaGarde and Davis - all watching from the bench.
Ford, who scored 26 points, fouled out with 5:45 to play; LaGarde, the 6-foot-10 center, has missed nine games with a knee injury, and Davis was nursing the broken index finger on his shooting hand, suffered in a fall in the semifinal victory over N.C. State.
But the Tar Heels' persistence in forcing as fast a pace as possible finally took its toll and enabled the Tar Heels to exploit their first-round bye as the regular-season champion.
It was 64-56 with 7:07 left when Virginia fell apart, quickly. Until then the Cavaliers had played consistently, running theif offense well enough and shooting free throws like machines. They were 22 of 23 from the foul line at this stage.
Then this normal model of consistency folded. In seven possessions, the Cavaliers committed three turnovers, mostly of their own doing, and missed five of six freethrows.
Freshman Mike O'Koren got the Tar Heels on the road back with a three-point play following an offensive rebound. Then John Kuester, the tournament's most valuable player, made sure the Tar Heels stuck together after Ford fouled out on the next Carolina possession.
"Subconsciously, maybe we thought that we had them," said forward Mare Iavaroni, an all-tourney selection last year when Virginia beat nationally ranked teams on three-successive nights for the title. "But with Carolina you never have them. They can make up five points in 15 seconds if they have to."
That 15-1 spurt gave Carolina a 71-65 lead with 2:05 to play. It was almost two minutes later when Billy Langloh made a meaningless layup for Virginia's only basket of the final 8 1/2 minutes.
"Our offense is based on making some very hard cuts," said Mike Owens, the freshman Virginia forward from Kensington, Md. "It's hard to make those kind of cuts when you're tired. Yes, their defense is pretty high pressured, but that wasn't it.
"If we hadn't come out of our offense, it would have been different," Owens added. "We weren't coming to the ball as hard as we should have been. It looked like the fatigue hit the entire team."
Even though the halftime score was 40-39, in Virginia's favor, North Carolina never really got the game to the pace it wanted until early in the second half. Two emotional factors helped the Tar Heels. First, coach Dean Smith was assessed a technical foul on a dubious call against Ford. Then Davis pleaded with his coach and came off the bench.
He made a couple of ball-handling errors that led to Virginia baskets. But his presence more than made up for that with the lift it gave the Tar Heels and brought alive the partisan Greensboro Coriseum crowd of 15,735.
You can find strength more when you're fighting advertisity," said Carolina forward Bruce Buckley, who started in Davis place. "It looked like they go cautious, trying to hold on rather than stick to what they were doing."
Losing coach Terry Holland, who almost brought Virginia from a low regular-season finish (2-10 ACC, 10-16 overall) to an ACC title two years in a row, gave credit to Carolina for forcing the pace as mutch as it did.
Carolina coach Smith ran his troops in a game-long shuttle in order to keep them as fresh as possible.
They did exactly what they had to do, said Holland. They kept coming at us until we were so exhausted we could not go any more in the final four minutes. They did a good job of exploiting the fact they had the bye."
At the end, the Cavaliers could not even catch up to the man they wanted to foul in the Tar Heels' four corner stall. The Cavaliers wanted to foul Buckley, instead they finally got freshman Dave Colescott, who had replaced Ford, with 23 seconds to play and the Tar Heels leading 71-67.
Colescott missed the first half of the bonus situation, but Garland Jefferson, who could have cut the margin to two points for Virginia, reciprocated after he was fouled a second later. Then Rich Yonaker sank two free throws to put the game out of reach.
North Carolina's win was its seventh ACC title and gave the Tar Hels a 24-4 season record. Virginia, which would have had to win the national championship to finish with a winning percentage, ended a season typified by illness and injury at 12-17.