CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett spent much of his Saturday afternoon in the same pose, crouched along the visiting sideline of the Dean E. Smith Center with a hand over his furrowed brow.
No matter how many times he turned to his assistants in a search for answers, Bennett found none on an afternoon when his usually stingy defense went missing. The Cavaliers couldn’t stop North Carolina from getting into the paint, struggled to keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass and allowed them to hit more three-pointers than they had in any ACC game this season.
“You can’t take away everything and we weren’t taking away anything,” a frustrated Bennett said after Virginia lost to the Tar Heels, 93-81, in a game that set several ignominious marks for the coach.
“They had us pretty much guessing, a step behind, and it’s a bad feeling when you’re sitting on the bench saying: ‘We can’t get a stop. We can’t,’ ” Bennett said. “We just exchanged buckets. Maybe that’s made for TV and everybody enjoys that, but it’s not fun when you’re sitting there trying to get stops.”
The Cavaliers (18-7, 8-4 ACC) entered Saturday with seven wins in their past eight games, and their rematch with the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5) carried all sorts of NCAA tournament implications. On this day, though, Bennett’s team completely lost track of its identity.
For the second time in three games, Virginia gave up a new season high in points, and this time the new mark was set with 9 minutes 15 seconds remaining. It’s the most points the Cavaliers have allowed in an ACC game under Bennett, and second-most points Virginia has allowed in Bennett’s four seasons leading the program (the Cavaliers lost, 106-63, to Washington at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 22, 2010).
The Tar Heels broke open a tie game at halftime by shooting 55.2 percent and scoring 53 points in the second half, more than the Cavaliers have allowed in 11 games this year, including a 61-52 win over North Carolina last month in Charlottesville.
North Carolina, which used a four-guard lineup for the second straight game, consistently exploited Virginia’s defense.
Sophomore P.J. Hairston led the charge with a career-high 29 points, including six of the Tar Heels’ 13 three-pointers, and freshman Marcus Paige added 19 points.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, wasted a second straight career-high performance from junior Joe Harris, who finished with 27 points. With the Tar Heels clicking on all cylinders early in the second half, he scored 11 straight Virginia points in a span of 2:36.
But each time Harris struck, North Carolina responded with a basket of its own and the lead quickly ballooned to 18 points.
The Cavaliers made matters worse by playing at a frenetic pace that is uncharacteristic for them. They had 14 turnovers as a result.
“We got seduced into their style of play,” said guard Jontel Evans, who had season highs in points (12) and turnovers (six).
“They were the aggressor on both ends of the floor.”
The raw numbers suggested offense was not the problem for Virginia, which made a season-high 12 three-pointers, connected on 11 of its first 13 shot attempts, finished 58.5 percent from the floor and collected the most points a Bennett-led team has ever scored in a loss.
But Bennett lamented how the Cavaliers took too many quick shots, instead of trying to wear down the run-and-gun Tar Heels. That, though, paled in comparison to how disheartened he became watching Virginia on the other end of the floor.
“When they’re hitting, and you’re not doing a whole lot to stop it,” Bennett said. “it’s going to be a long night.”