CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia’s 24-point loss to North Carolina on Saturday night reminded Coach Tony Bennett of a phrase assistant coach Brad Soderberg has displayed in his office: “Everyone’s got a plan until someone punches them in the face.”
Trite though it might be, the saying summarizes the Cavaliers’ recent precipitous drop in offensive efficiency and, as a result, in the ACC standings perfectly. Virginia’s plan all season has been to rely on a rotating cast of scorers for its offense — a different night, a different leading scorer. But the Cavaliers reached their first three-game losing streak since 2011 on Saturday on the back of another abysmal offensive outing in which outside shots just wouldn’t fall and an inside scoring presence was nowhere to be found.
Afterward, Bennett described a team at its crisis point.
“I mean, you’re just fighting to try to be good,” Bennett said. “Confidence — you got to earn your confidence. We lose three games, and you say, sure, you say, all right, what do we have to do to get back to playing good basketball? We talk about quality. We were down 25 or whatever it was, but can we get it right? Can we at least play the way we have to play the last few? We couldn’t even seem to get to that. . . . It stings you.”
Virginia’s problems begin with its offense. Against North Carolina, the Cavaliers (18-8, 8-6 ACC) made just 15 field goals and shot a season-low 27.8 percent from the field — a game after they had shot a season-low 36.8 percent in a 10-point loss against Duke in Charlottesville. Usually dependable scorers such as point guard London Perrantes (3 for 10 from the field) and junior guard Devon Hall (0 for 7) were helpless. Virginia connected on 2 of 20 attempts from three-point range.
Before the loss to Duke on Wednesday, Virginia led the ACC in field goal percentage (49.2 percent) and was second in three-point field goal percentage (39.5). Heading into Monday night’s matchup against Miami (18-8, 8-6), the Cavaliers stand at fourth in the conference in field goal percentage (47.8 percent) and eighth in three-point field goal percentage (37.6 percent).
Virginia’s need to break its offensive slump felt urgent Saturday night, though the Cavaliers couldn’t come up with answers. They dropped from fifth to seventh in the conference standings after Saturday with just four regular season games remaining — including homestands against North Carolina and an accurate Pittsburgh team that beat Virginia, 88-76 in overtime, in January. The Cavaliers are in danger of losing the double-bye in the ACC tournament they have enjoyed for the past five years.
“Yeah, I don’t know what to say,” Perrantes said. “We’re struggling, obviously, we’ve just got to find a way to get over it. Get over the hump, get over the slump.”
Bennett said it’s too soon to tell whether Virginia is simply missing open shots or whether it’s having a tough time creating good looks. Either way, North Carolina made starkly clear how much the Cavaliers are missing an inside scoring presence. The Tar Heels’ rangy defenders easily nullified most of Virginia’s chances under the basket.
“Points are hard to manufacture for us if we’re not hitting those outside shots,” Bennett said. “. . . Because of how we’re wired and without as much of the interior scoring — though we could throw it in there a little more — it’s just kind of who we are. We’ve got to keep trying to find ways to get alternative scoring. We couldn’t find any tonight.”
Another factor that makes the Cavaliers’ offensive slump an urgent issue: Poor offense is bleeding into the foundation of Bennett’s program, the defense, and keeping Virginia from being its best on that end of the court as well.
Perrantes said the connection between the two is mental. After jumping out to an 8-6 lead and holding North Carolina to 3-for-10 shooting at the start of the game Saturday, the Tar Heels got hot and Virginia faded. North Carolina missed just seven field goals after that, while the Cavaliers finished the half having made 8 of 24 attempts from the field.
“Offense kind of messed with our heads,” Perrantes said. “It didn’t allow us to go out there and play defense.”
Virginia’s next chance to right itself comes on what should be a meaningful night for Cavaliers fans. On Monday, former ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon returns to Charlottesville to have his jersey retired at a time when Virginia desperately misses what he brought to Bennett’s program: a dependable scorer who could carry the Cavaliers on offense.
The significance of that timing, though coincidental, isn’t lost on Virginia players. Perrantes spoke Saturday as if he wouldn’t blame Cavaliers fans for wanting to look away from their team at the moment.
“Hopefully they come out and watch, they come out and see him,” Perrantes said. “Hopefully they come out and see him for all the stuff that he did for us, all the stuff he did for the program. Hopefully we can put on a better performance than we did tonight.”