CHARLOTTESVILLE — The fact that No. 25 Virginia remained in contention in the closing seconds of Saturday’s matchup against No. 7 North Carolina, despite once again being hounded on the boards and plagued by foul trouble all afternoon, provided the Cavaliers little consolation.
In fact, Virginia’s players said, that made Saturday’s 54-51 loss to the Tar Heels sting even worse than the 18-point thrashing they took from the same opponent two weeks earlier.
Virginia (21-7, 8-6 ACC) did not fall because its best player, Mike Scott, a fifth-year senior forward, largely was ineffective or because it could not hang with a Tar Heels squad that was superior in size and sheer talent. Strangely, several uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns kept one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country from coming out on top.
It didn’t help, Coach Tony Bennett said, that all three of his team’s available big men were constrained by foul trouble most of the game.
“We couldn’t afford to play with everything we had and fight for positioning” in the post, Bennett said. “I thought at times we were a little tentative down low or afraid to come off and help. We didn’t have the right kind of anticipation defensively, and they got a couple of dunks at the rim at crucial times.”
None was more critical than the one North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller tallied with 13.3 seconds remaining in the game. Zeller had caught a pass near the free throw line and gave a pump fake with time on the shot clock running low. Sophomore forward Akil Mitchell, who was defending Zeller, leaped into the air and realized too late that Zeller instead had elected to drive to the basket.
Zeller’s emphatic dunk put the Tar Heels (25-4, 12-2) up by three. He finished with a game-high 20 points and six rebounds.
“I feel if Akil didn’t leave his feet, we’d probably be in here celebrating right now,” said junior guard Jontel Evans, who finished with a team-high 13 points.
Asked for his own assessment of that sequence, Mitchell said: “I made a huge mistake there. We work on that all year. I figured the shot clock was running out, so I tried to contest the shot and got a little too anxious. He drew me up in the air and made a really good play.”
Mitchell was among the Virginia players saddled with foul trouble Saturday. He picked up his fourth foul with just less than 13 minutes remaining in the game. Scott, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, picked up his fourth foul 38 seconds after Mitchell’s and played just 22 minutes.
But Scott’s struggle to find his rhythm was not solely attributable to his foul trouble. He entered the day as the ACC’s leader in field goal percentage, but made 3 of 13 shots Saturday. Three Virginia players scored in double figures, but Scott (six points) was not one of them.
“I was just not on tonight,” Scott said. “Most of the shots I took I normally make.”
In many ways, Saturday’s contest played out similarly to the 70-52 loss Virginia suffered Feb. 11 at North Carolina. Foul trouble combined with a poor rebounding effort led to that defeat.
This time around, the Tar Heels claimed a 48-29 edge on the boards. But the Cavaliers’ ability to effectively penetrate into the paint gave them enough baskets in the second half to keep North Carolina from pulling away like it did in Chapel Hill.
Did that make this loss a little easier to swallow?
“No,” fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “I probably feel worse because we know we had a chance to win it.”