As he strode from his postgame press conference to the visiting locker room Saturday afternoon at Smith Center, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett yanked once at his orange tie, and then again. He pulled it off and carried it in a loop in his right hand while his left immediately went to work loosening the top button of his shirt. His pace quickened.
It was understandable that Bennett wanted to get out of Chapel Hill as quickly as possible. The nineteenth-ranked Cavaliers had just received their most thorough beating of the season, a 70-52 loss to No. 5 North Carolina. The Tar Heels had dominated on the boards and seemed to capitalize on every Virginia miscue.
But worst of all in Bennett’s eyes, he noticed a considerable drop-off in his players’ focus, discipline and effort level as the game progressed. That the Cavaliers were outclassed by a North Carolina roster stock full of former McDonald’s all-Americans did not come as a surprise. That they let the talent disparity get to them, affect them mentally – that’s what perturbed Bennett the most.
“You have to have your guards come back to rebound and help out,” Bennett said. “There were three or four times when we just forgot to block out, and you can’t afford those. There’s gonna be some great plays where you’re going to be in position and they’re just going to make an athletic play over the top, and we’ll live with that. But the ones where we didn’t do our part, those are the ones that I have a hard time dealing with.”
1) Jontel Evans. When Virginia got into early foul trouble (more on that in a minute), the Cavaliers had to employ a four-guard lineup in the latter part of the first half. On offense, four Virginia players spread the floor along the perimeter while Evans dashed into the lane for an array of layup attempts. Evans had 10 points by halftime and finished with 12 points, five assists and four turnovers.
It was the same strategy Virginia had used a week earlier against a Florida State team with superior size at every position. Though the Cavaliers lost, 58-55, they erased a 13-point deficit in the final nine minutes of the game and at one point took a brief lead with that ploy.
On Saturday, Virginia led at multiple points during the first half. But North Carolina closed the opening period on a 15-5 run, and it seemed pretty clear the four-guard lineup would be untenable as a game-long solution against the Tar Heels.
2) Mike Scott. His fadeaway jumper wasn’t falling with its typical frequency, but the fifth-year senior forward still managed to score 18 points and grab six rebounds. Scott got off to a hot start, tallying 10 points in the first seven minutes and nine seconds of the game. But Scott picked up his second foul and had to sit on the bench for the final nine minutes of the half. He picked up his third foul less than three minutes into the second half and had to play a bit more tentatively on defense the rest of the game.
3) Darion Atkins. The freshman forward logged only 11 minutes, but he was forced into an unenviable position in the first half and did fairly well for a first-year player matching up against Tyler Zeller, a 7-foot ACC player of the year candidate. Yeah, he picked up three fouls in the first half, but he finished with four rebounds and two blocked shots. With Scott and Akil Mitchell in foul trouble, Atkins shouldered a large responsibility and helped keep Virginia in contention heading into halftime.
1) Foul trouble/rebounding. This was the origin of Virginia’s struggles Saturday. All three of Virginia’s available big men collected at least two fouls in the first half, as did the Cavaliers’ top-rebounding guard, Joe Harris. Due to the foul trouble, Virginia either had to operate out of a four-guard lineup against a North Carolina lineup that often enabled the Tar Heels to own a height advantage at every position, or the Cavaliers had to work with the understanding that whichever two big men were in the game were not going to be as aggressive as they otherwise would be.
The result was not pretty for Bennett’s squad. North Carolina posted a 52-32 rebounding advantage, including a 23-8 edge on the offensive glass. The Tar Heels tallied 23 points off of offensive rebounds; Virginia managed just nine. So yeah, North Carolina made only 35.3 percent of its shots, but the Tar Heels attempted 13 more field goals than did the Cavaliers. Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes combined to register 30 rebounds. In other words, that trio nearly out-rebounded Virginia’s entire roster on its own.
“All you’ve got to do is look at the stat sheet, and for them, 23 offensive rebounds is too much,” Bennett said. “That stretch in the second half, we really lost our way. We couldn’t get them off the glass, and we had some breakdowns defensively. We didn’t execute. For us to have a chance in a game like this, we’ve got to do a better job on the glass, and for whatever reason, we struggled. We tried to work at it in preparing for them, but it was alarming how many second shots, or third shots, they got in a possession.”
2) Nagging injuries. Scott’s surgically repaired ankle flared up in Friday’s practice, Bennett said, though Scott showed no signs of discomfort during the game. He played only 27 minutes, but that was due to foul trouble rather than injury.
Also, at some point in the first half Harris’s left (non-shooting) hand was stepped on, and the ensuing discomfort in the knuckles of his ring and middle finger was enough to require his hand to be taped up for the second half. Harris made two three-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half and finished with eight points in 35 minutes. The injury didn’t seem too serious, though Harris said his hand would be X-rayed after the team returned to Charlottesville.
“It made it a little bit tougher to grab [the ball] with my left hand,” Harris said. “I couldn’t really squeeze it.”
Oh, and this doesn’t really qualify as a nagging injury, but it was pretty obvious Bennett cannot wait for senior center Assane Sene’s scheduled return in early March from an ankle fracture. Sene might not have prevented the final outcome, and he might not have entirely erased North Carolina’s rebounding edge. But his presence certainly would have helped on defense and on the boards. If nothing else, he would have represented five more available fouls.
3) Three-point shooting. Virginia shot 3 of 16 (18.8 percent) from three-point range Saturday. The Cavaliers could alleviate the pressure inside by spreading North Carolina’s defense. In fact, the Tar Heels didn’t seem too concerned at all with avidly defending the three-point line, even when Harris hit those two three-pointers early in the second half. In a match-up in which Virginia clearly is at a size disadvantage, the Cavaliers simply have to shoot more accurately from the perimeter. Easier said than done, of course. Harris made 2 of 5 three-point attempts on the day, while fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski shot 1 for 6 from beyond the arc. Freshmen guards Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson each missed a pair of three-point attempts, and Scott missed one, as well.