Whether it was because of size, effort, or some questionable calls from the refs, rebounding woes doomed the Hoos in their 70-52 loss at UNC.
The 19th-ranked Cavaliers had another opportunity for a statement road win, but once again competed early before running out of gas late, falling 70-52 to #5 North Carolina. The Hoos clung to a second half lead with as little as 15:30 to play before falling behind for good as shooting woes, rebounding problems, and a little home-cooking from the refs were too much to overcome.
Despite a 3 point halftime deficit, UVA dominated much of the first half, leading 16-9 and 27-20 in two instances. Mike Scott and Jontel Evans together formed a formidable combination, as Evans found easy layups (scoring 6 points in a row in one stretch) and Scott hit his usual circus shots. Defensively, the Cavaliers frustrated the high-flying UNC offense, holding them to just 2 transition points in the first half and forcing them into an often stagnant half-court offense.
The overriding theme of the game, which ended up being the turning point, was foul trouble. Mike Scott scored 10 points in the first 10 minutes of the game, but picked up his second foul shortly thereafter and was forced to watch the remainder of the half from the bench. He scored on the first play of the second half, then was benched once again after he was called for his third foul on a questionable reach-in. Though he finished with 18 points on 9 for 17 shooting and 6 rebounds, he appeared, well, almost human as he seemed to be out of rhythm after a couple missed jumpers down the stretch.
At halftime, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins had earned 2 fouls apiece as well, and both ended up with 4. The Tar Heels finished 21-27 on free throws, as they picked up 15 of their 35 first-half points from the free-throw line.
Despite foul trouble for Virginia's big men, it appeared that Jontel Evans would be able to keep the Hoos in the game. His 12 points were his most since the team's December game at Oregon and represented a career-high in ACC play (he had previously scored 11 in last year's game against UNC). He also led the team with 5 assists, but his game-high 4 turnovers are an aspect he must continue to work on.
Defensively, the Hoos executed most of their game-plan successfully - Carolina thrives on their fast break and secondary break offense, but UVA's propensity to forego offensive rebounding opportunities to get set defensively forced a half-court game. Unfortunately, the team also had a propensity to forego defensive rebounds. Virginia entered the game 4th in the nation in defensive rebounding, allowing offensive boards just 24% of the time. However, Carolina grabbed 23 offensive rebounds in 47 opportunities (48.9%). For comparison, UVA went 8 for 37 (21.6%). These struggles keyed UNC's 22-5 run that turned the game from a nail-biter into what appears like a rout. While schematic differences were responsible for part of the disparity, two other factors (excuses?) exist also. First, UNC's size advantage, especially with the loss of Assane Sene, was way too much for the Cavaliers to match. The 7-foot Tyler Zeller, who also finished with 25 points on 9-16 shooting, had his way inside against the undersized UVA frontcourt. Secondly, the refs really hurt our ability to grab rebounds without being mugged, and eventually forced foul-plagued players to be less agressive inside.
Overall, UNC had the benefit of drawing 18 fouls and 27 free-throws to UVA's 11 fouls and 13 free-throws. Obviously, one would not expect these numbers to be even - our team is smaller and less athletically-gifted, thus prone to committing fouls trying to guard the Tar Heels. However, UNC definitely got away with a couple over the back calls and were allowed to play physically inside. On the other hand, the refs called ticky-tack fouls against the Cavaliers, disrupting our rhythm and giving UNC easy points. An exclamation point was thrown on when Harrison Barnes absolutely blew up Jontel Evans on a loose ball, resulting in a no-call and eventual jump ball to UNC that more or less sealed the game.
As has been a common thread in Virginia's losses, the team was plagued by shooting woes, especially from beyond the arc. Sammy Zeglinski struggled once again, finishing 1-7 with 3 points, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers. He is now 2-14 from behind the arc and 5-19 overall in his last 3 games. Malcolm Brogdon and Paul Jesperson each missed their two 3-point attempts, all on good looks. Brogdon finished 2-6 from the field, with 6 points, including a three-point play to extend UVA's first-half lead to 7.
A potential injury to Joe Harris gives more cause for concern. After being called for an inexplicable foul call on a loose ball near the sideline, Harris went out of the game and game back after halftime with his hand and wrist heavily wrapped. Tony Bennett indicated that the injury was to his hand, just below his fingers. It didn't seem to both Joe too much; after finishing the first half with no points, he scored 8 in the second, nailing 2 key three-pointers. Bennett also revealed that Mike Scott's ankle had flared up in practice this week, though he fought through the pain admirably.
Regardless of the final score in Chapel Hill, I like UVA's chances at pulling off the upset at home. Obviously the team will need to do a better job making shots, but UNC is far from unbeatable when forced to play a half-court offensive game. Virginia falls to 6-4 in the ACC with the loss.
This record is about what we would expect 10 games into conference play, as UVA was endowed with the luck of traveling to UNC, FSU, and Duke without the benefit of a return visit (yet). Yes, the team's three toughest games have passed and the Hoos haven't done quite enough to grab the big upset. And yes, it's okay to curse and throw things during and after each of these games, regardless of how much it horrifies your roommates (I hope). But losing is nothing to be ashamed of; rather, it just means that we have some big games to win at home.
Before Virginia returns to JPJ next weekend to get it's first look at Maryland (the only ACC team UVA has yet to play), the team heads to Clemson, its first rematch of the year. Virginia prevailed 65-61 on January 31st in a game that was way too close for comfort. Beating the gritty Tigers, who are 3-4 in the ACC, on the road won't be an easy task, though its another game that the Hoos should win. During the quick turnaround to Tuesday's matchup on ESPNU, we'll have a look back at that January matchup to remember how Clemson plays and what the Hoos will need to do to sweep them.