Virginia men’s basketball traveled down to Chapel Hill, N.C. Saturday night to take on North Carolina in the teams’ second matchup of the season. The Cavaliers (21-6, 13-5 ACC) fell to the Tar Heels (18-11, 10-8 ACC) by a score of 71-63, with Virginia trailing further behind most of the game than the final score suggests.
“I told the guys there’s a lot of basketball left to play,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “We’ll get after it and keep trying to find ways.”
Despite winning the final period by eight points, Virginia’s offensive struggles over the past few games persisted. The Cavaliers shot just 39.7 percent from the floor and failed to reach 70 points for the eighth consecutive game.
“I keep hoping one of these days we’re gonna break out of that little shooting slump,” Bennett said.
On the other end, the Tar Heels shot the lights out from beyond the arc, drilling 10 triples at a 45.5 percent clip on their way to a comfortable victory.
The treys were falling from start to finish for North Carolina, who jumped out to a 21-12 lead midway through the first half thanks to five early three-pointers. Graduate student forward Pete Nance contributed three of them.
The lead grew to 12 after two three-pointers from junior forward Puff Johnson, but a response from graduate student forward Ben Vander Plas quieted the crowd temporarily and put the lead back at nine with six minutes remaining.
Yet the Tar Heels roared back, using missed shots by the Cavaliers and a two-handed slam from senior center Armando Bacot to spark a 10-2 run that sent North Carolina up by 17 points. Virginia simply could not stop the fiery Tar Heel offense, which shot 15-26 from the field in the first half and 9-16 from beyond the arc.
Points from junior guard Reece Beekman and freshman guard Isaac McKneely partnered with a couple of stops before halftime ate into the gap, but a Nance fadeaway three-pointer as time expired saw the score sit at 42-26 entering the break.
Virginia’s offense finally came out to play at the start of the second half, opening with a 10-2 run featuring three-pointers from Vander Plas and graduate student guard Kihei Clark to cut the lead to single digits.
But an and-one layup from junior guard R.J. Davis again put the lead at double digits.
The game slowed down as the half wore on. Every time it seemed as if the Cavaliers had an opportunity to get within a couple of possessions, a turnover, a missed shot or a Tar Heel basket would keep the lead somewhat comfortable for North Carolina.
Despite a field goal drought of over four and a half minutes for the Tar Heels, the advantage remained at double digits as the Cavaliers endured their own offensive struggles to the tune of a 1-9 stretch from the floor. A Bacot hook shot pushed the score to 55-43.
However, Bacot picked up his fourth foul with 8:07 left to go, and two free throws from Clark in the next passage of play made the gap 10 again. But that 1-9 split from the field grew to 1-16 and key missed layups and free throws destroyed any chance of a comeback.
“No one is trying to miss a layup or miss a free throw,” Bennett said. “I thought we ran tough, hard offense and produced quality shots.”
A Beekman layup ended that stretch, but another missed free-throw on the and-one opportunity felt like a microcosm of the game — and quite frankly the last four games for Virginia.
With the score at 63-47, a Clark jumper and potential and-one layup — followed by a missed free throw — left the deficit at 12.
A few baskets from graduate student forward Jayden Gardner and senior guard Armaan Franklin brought the Cavaliers within six points as the clock ticked under 30 seconds, but that was as close as Virginia would come.
North Carolina junior guard Caleb Love sank four free throws to keep the Tar Heels’ advantage safe, and the hosts dribbled out the clock on the Cavaliers’ second successive defeat.
“We really fought in the second half,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “If we could’ve played two halves quality like that, maybe [the game] would have been different.”
Gardner led Virginia with 19 points and 12 rebounds on 9-17 shooting, but that was just about the only notable Cavaliers performance Saturday. A 5-11 split from the charity stripe and 8-25 on layups was a sore sight for the eyes of Virginia fans.
With just two regular season games remaining before ACC Tournament play, the Cavaliers do not have much time to right their wrongs. Changing the lineup combinations will not promise success, as there is not enough time to experiment anymore. Bennett will either have to find an offensive solution or hope his players can shake off their offensive slump — especially from the three-point line.
Next up for Virginia is a home matchup against Clemson Wednesday at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed on ACC Network and and broadcast on Virginia Sports Radio Network.