CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia turned in the defensive performance many have come to expect Saturday afternoon in its 61-49 win against North Carolina, drawing hearty approval from the packed house at John Paul Jones Arena when forcing the Tar Heels into multiple shot clock violations.
The surprise was the eighth-ranked Cavaliers’ offense, which saw players repeatedly getting to the rim for dunks as exclamation points in Virginia’s sixth straight win. It was the fifth straight loss in this arena for the reigning national champions, and it led to a succinct appraisal of the performance from Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams in his postgame news conference.
“It was a big old butt-kicking. That’s all it was,” he said.
Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter did his part in the second half in front of an announced crowd of 14,401, including collecting a loose ball near the baseline, spinning and elevating for a one-handed dunk over Joel Berry II, last season’s Final Four most outstanding player.
Once Hunter landed, the redshirt freshman flexed and then bellowed in celebration as the Cavaliers (14-1, 3-0 ACC) took a 45-36 lead with 12:41 remaining. No. 12 North Carolina got within five points moments later, but Virginia bumped the margin to 10 when Kyle Guy came off a screen for a three-pointer, and Hunter and Nigel Johnson both made free throws.
Hunter finished with 10 points in his second straight game playing as a stretch-four in Coach Tony Bennett’s four-guard lineup. He was among six Virginia players who dunked and had the Cavaliers looking far more athletic than North Carolina (12-4, 1-2), which lost a second straight game for the first time since February 2016.
“I tracked down the rebound, and I saw the baseline open, and I saw Joel Berry, and I really wanted him to jump,” Hunter said of his highlight reel jam. “Once I got the ball, I knew I was going to dunk it, so I was hoping he jumped.
“I wanted to dunk on him, yeah.”
The moxie to do so against an accomplished player underscores Hunter’s considerable confidence that, according to both he and Bennett, comes in part from sitting out last season.
That wasn’t the plan when Hunter arrived in Charlottesville, but a high ankle sprain compelled Bennett to eventually decide redshirting would allow the 6-foot-7 wing player to focus on getting stronger. Hunter spent countless hours in the weight room, and this season the results have been translating onto the court.
“It was a hard decision because we thought he possibly could have helped us in certain ways,” Bennett said, “but we thought for his physical maturity and development of his game, his ball skills, his shooting, just going to work like all of our redshirts, we thought it might be the best, maybe not short term for us, but long term for him and for us, we thought it was the right decision.”
Hunter has scored in double figures in three of his past four games, including 14 in Wednesday night’s 78-52 rout of Virginia Tech, which was the largest margin of victory for the Cavaliers in the series since 1955.
He added seven rebounds against North Carolina, which committed 19 turnovers that led to 25 points. The Tar Heels scored just three points off turnovers, a disparity Williams lamented along with blaming himself for not having his team ready for the Cavaliers’ vaunted defense.
“Their defense was a million times stronger than our offense,” Williams said. “We didn’t have very good movement. We sort of tried to go one-on-one way too many times, didn’t get as much as we needed to taking the ball to the basket. Their defense was really good. I told Tony it’s about as good a defensive game as I’ve had anybody play against us, maybe ever but definitely in a long time.”
Virginia limited the Tar Heels to a shade below 30 percent shooting, their second lowest this season. North Carolina made just seven field goals in the second half, five of which came courtesy of Berry, who led all players with 17 points, although he took 17 shots to reach that total.
Cavaliers forward Isaiah Wilkins, calling the matchup “personal,” flustered North Carolina leading scorer Luke Maye into his worst scoring performance this season. The 6-8 junior finished with six points and shot 2 for 10, with virtually every attempt contested.
Senior guard Devon Hall had 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting and seven of Virginia’s 16 assists. He and Hunter were the only Cavaliers players to score in double figures.
“We did a good job of getting back, and we scrambled for each other, and we made plays on the defensive end,” said Hall, who made all four of his three-point attempts. “We were able to block shots. We did a better job in the second half. We did a pretty good job today.”