CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Twice this season, Virginia has traveled to confront an opponent whose NCAA tournament expectations were on life support. Twice the Cavaliers have failed to withstand the predictable and desperate flurry.
Saturday’s 71-63 defeat at North Carolina was the latest example, and was similar to a loss at Virginia Tech earlier this month.
Virginia never led in either contest, and was ruined by breakdowns at both ends of the floor. Basic fundamentals such as defensive rotations and, yes, layups escaped the Cavaliers.
“I keep hoping one of these days we’ll break out of [this] little shooting slump,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “It’ll happen.”
Entering the regular season’s final week, time is short.
In their first 24 games this season, the Cavaliers only shot less than 40% twice. Since then, they have been below that bar in three consecutive outings: a victory over Notre Dame and setbacks at Boston College and UNC.
“I thought we ran good, hard, tough offense and produced pretty much quality shots,” Bennett said.
Virginia’s inability to finish at the rim against the Tar Heels’ length and athleticism was glaring. Pete Nance and Leaky Black blocked four shots each and, along with Armando Bacot, altered several others. But many of the Cavaliers’ misses were on them.
“Gotta keep working to simulate [finishing] in practice and working at game speed,” forward Jayden Gardner said.
Gardner had team-highs of 19 points and 12 rebounds, but had two shots blocked and missed several others at the rim. Reece Beekman also had two attempts blocked.
Bennett said Virginia (21-6, 13-5 ACC) “fought like crazy” in the second half, but a 16-point deficit at intermission proved insurmountable.
At tipoff, Carolina was 345th nationally in 3-point accuracy at 29.8%. Moreover, the Tar Heels had made a meager 2 of 23 beyond the arc Wednesday at Notre Dame.
Some progression to the mean was probably inevitable Saturday, and when Caleb Love hit an excuse-me bank from deep on the left wing in the opening minutes, it felt like it would be UNC’s afternoon. But most of the Tar Heels’ nine first-half triples were open looks, and they finished 10 of 22 from long range.
A 6-foot-11 transfer from Northwestern, Nance was 4 of 4 beyond the arc and scored a game-high 22 points, which is not the type of scoring to which this inside-out, transition-oriented bunch is accustomed.
Indeed, Carolina did not have a single fast-break point and grabbed only three offensive rebounds. Plus, Virginia won the paint scoring battle, 26-20.
“You’d like your chances,” Bennett said of that formula.
February funk notwithstanding, Virginia is certain to make the NCAA tournament. Ranked No. 1 in preseason, North Carolina (18-11, 10-8) is not.
Prior to UNC’s victory at Notre Dame on Wednesday, the Raleigh News & Observer’s C.L. Brown prefaced a question to coach Hubert Davis by mentioning that the Tar Heels had lost four of their last five games.
“Five out of six,” Davis interjected.
And that is Davis. He is transparent, understands and embraces the program’s standards and owns his team’s shortcomings.
UNC’s 3-point accuracy has cratered from last year’s 35.8%, and when players shoot poorly, they often wilt defensively, a natural inclination the Tar Heels have not resisted enough.
Part of this is the departure of Brady Manek, who last season as a senior was the team’s best deep shooter. His quick release and fearless approach were primary reasons Carolina reached the NCAA final.
But a larger part of this is incumbent guards Love and RJ Davis. Their dips are a reflection of shot selection and lack of confidence.
When teams are not meeting expectations, drama away from the court or field is almost sure to follow.
“I think there’s been a lot of noise around our team this year, and too much,” Davis said earlier in the week. “Always, individually and as a team, trying to turn down that noise, wherever it’s coming from — the phone, the family, the friends, the fans or wherever. But also understand that ... we can be scarred and disappointed and upset, but we still have an opportunity to compete.
“We still have an opportunity and time to become the team that I think we can become. Our guys have always gotten back up and always competed and always fought, even though at times it is difficult, our guys have always stepped up to the challenge, and they’ll do it again.”
They did so Saturday, and now it’s Virginia’s turn Tuesday at home against Clemson.
“You just keep knocking and try to make little adjustments,” Bennett said. “We’ll get after it, and keep trying to find ways.”