With a trip to the semifinal of the ACC Tournament on the line and a chance to deliver payback to one of its most hated rivals, Virginia was not able to be competitive against North Carolina in a 63-43 loss that the team would surely like to forget. The Cavaliers’ (19-13, 12-8 ACC) offense in the first half ultimately was the downfall of the team, although the Tar Heels (24-8, 15-5 ACC) made shots on the other end as well to combine for a disappointing exit from the conference postseason.
After winning the tip, North Carolina opened the scoring with a bucket by graduate forward Brady Manek off of an offensive rebound — a worrisome sight given the Tar Heels’ success on the glass in the first matchup. Good news arrived soon after for the Cavaliers, however, when junior guard Armaan Franklin opened the scoring for Virginia, seemingly shaking off his scoreless night Wednesday against Louisville. A three-pointer from sophomore guard Reece Beekman — a shot the Cavaliers as a team were unable to make the previous night — gave Virginia a 7-6 lead at the first media timeout.
The frontcourt of North Carolina gave Virginia fits throughout the first half, with Manek and junior forward Armando Bacot combining for 10 of the team’s first 16 points as the Tar Heels built a seven-point advantage with 11:43 remaining in the first half. Yet another three by Manek made the lead 21-11 at the under-eight timeout, with the Cavaliers’ offense lurching out of the gate yet again, starting the game just 4-18 from the field.
Both teams cooled off after the break, but Virginia needed a run it simply did not get in the first half to get back in the game. Gardner scored six points to lead the Cavaliers, but it took him nine shots to get there, and no other player scored more than three points for the sixth-seeded team from Charlottesville.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels did not exactly put on an offensive showcase themselves, shooting just 38 percent from the field, but North Carolina was able to ride Manek’s 21 points to take a commanding 33-13 lead to the locker room. To end the first half, Virginia was unable to score for the final 6:15 of the period, putting it in a seemingly inescapable hole. Coach Tony Bennett was blunt when it came to his team’s struggles.
“You know, when we did get some quality looks, we didn’t hit them,” Bennett said. “That kind of gets into you, and we've talked about this a lot, it puts a lot of pressure on our defense. We didn’t have an answer for stretches.”
Franklin finally stopped the bleeding with a made shot to start the second half, but not before North Carolina got a bucket of its own. Even though some semblance of offense returned for the Cavaliers in the latter period, their defense wasn’t particularly bringing the game any closer. A wide open three-pointer by sophomore guard Caleb Love stretched the lead to 46-22 — the largest of the game — and forced Bennett to call a timeout with 12:48 remaining to try and somehow rescue both this game and Virginia’s season.
Sophomore center Kadin Shedrick came out with a purpose, scoring four straight to cut the deficit back to 20, but that number was a hump that the Cavaliers could not seem to get over. After three separate periods where that was the deficit, Gardner — who finished with 17 points on the night — finally made the score 53-34 with 6:36 left to play. Unfortunately, less than a minute later, the Tar Heels pushed the lead back to 21, and the margin would not be smaller until the very end of the match.
Virginia would actually shoot at a respectable 52 percent clip in the second half, but the outcome of the game was never seriously in doubt due to the massive margin Manek and the Tar Heels were able to build early in the first game. The benches emptied for the final few minutes of the matchup as North Carolina ultimately salted away a 63-43 win.
“We’re always on that fine line,” Bennett said, referring to the close margin of many games Virginia has played this season. “But it stings right now that we got humbled against a team that played really good basketball.”
And with that, Virginia’s slim chance of making the NCAA tournament were effectively killed. Perhaps an NIT bid is still in play for the Cavaliers, but for the first time since 2013 and only the second time during the Bennett tenure, Virginia’s name will not be heard on Selection Sunday.
Relying on a combination of young players and transfers would always be a difficult task, but there is something to be said for how Cavalier fans view a season where Virginia finished above .500 in the ACC a disappointment. Although no one wanted the ACC Tournament to end this way, it is truly impressive how high the expectations of Virginia basketball have been raised.