Joe Harris better be careful! Exhaling too close to the frail John Henson makes the Hoos prone to picking up fouls.
Virginia took the court at John Paul Jones Arena with a big opportunity in front of it. After losing tough games on the road to Duke, UNC, and FSU, the ACC's "elite" this season, the #25 Hoos finally had the chance to pull off the upset at home. The team came out, in front of a rowdy sellout crowd, and knew what they had to gain, showing tremendous toughness all night. That chance for a win against a top-10 team, for a pass directly to the NCAA Tournament, and for a student celebration on the court after the game remained within UVA's reach into the final seconds of the contest. All those rewards would remain just outside of our grasps, as an ice-cold Mike Scott, along with brutal officiating, kept #7 Carolina in the game; a last-minute shot wouldn't fall for the Hoos, sealing the 54-51 loss.
Scott had his poorest game of the season, shooting 3 of 13 from the field and finishing with just 6 points. Those misses were all on jump shots; while previously his bread and butter, the jumper just wasn't falling tonight. He was also limited by foul trouble. He picked up his second foul midway though the first half and was forced to the bench. A weak push away from the basket was targeted for his third foul, and Scott picked up foul number 4 on a horrendous call from the officiating crew. Scrambling for a loose ball with Scott, Henson flung himself violently backwards to draw a foul, sending the refs to the monitors to ensure there was no flagrant committed. However, replay shows zero contact was made; either a strong gust of wind blew him backwards, or John Henson is a cowardly flop-artist. (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt). Mike Scott was forced back and forth from the bench and picked a terrible time to have an off-game shooting the ball.
North Carolina started the game off fast, storming to a 17-8 lead just nine minutes in. However, it was clear that the crowd would not allow UVA to go down quietly at home, pushing the team back into contention. Sammy Zeglinski's three-pointer gave the Hoos their first lead with 4:44 to play, and his circus shot at the buzzer sent them into the locker room with a 30-26 advantage.
Virginia would expand its lead to as many as 6 points, at 37-31, when the tide slowly started to turn. A Malcolm Brogdon three that would have brought JPJ down went halfway through the net before somehow popping back out. A 13-4 UNC run gave them the lead and set up a thrilling finish, in which neither team would lead by more than three points at any time. A Jontel Evans layup cut the deficit to 1, at 52-51, and UVA would regain the ball with a minute to play.
On the possession, Scott found himself open for a three from the corner, a shot that bounced off the rim for his 10th miss of the night. While the shot was early in the possession, it wasn't a bad one, especially considering the two-for-one it set up for the Hoos, who would be guaranteed another possession. However, UNC extended the lead to 3 points when Akil Mitchell bit on a Tyler Zeller pump fake, allowing him to drive for a dunk with 14 seconds to play. Zeglinksi somehow found an open shot from behind the arc on the ensuing possession, but he couldn't get it to fall. Harrison Barnes missed the front end of his one-and-one, allowing a chance for a desperation shot to tie that ended up way off.
The loss is a really tough one to swallow for fans and must be ten times worse for players. No one can feel worse than Mike Scott; all players will have an off-night at some point, but his couldn't have come at a worse time. When Scott rises up for an 18-foot fadeaway jumper, spoiled fans just expect the shot to drop. Apparently, he is a mere mortal, hindered by inability to get into a rhythm, loss of his perfect touch, or just bad luck. He will probably get beat up by the media, and Zeller's 20 points will vault him into frontrunner status in the ACC Player of the Year race, but it's important to remember what Scott has done in the other 27 games this season.
It's tough to pick out another player who didn't have a strong outing. Joe Harris was an absolute warrior, scoring 12 points and earning three blocks, two of those with his broken left hand. Malcolm Brogdon played through his injury too, scoring 4 points and earning one of the most impressive plays of the night on a left-handed finish on the right side of the rim. Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins battled though foul trouble, working really hard all night to bottle up Zeller and Henson. Paul Jesperson nailed a key three-pointer to key the Hoos' first-half comeback and is picking up the defense at lightning-fast speed. Sammy Zeglinski may have missed 8 shots, but he nailed three huge ones from behind the arc.
However, Jontel Evans was, once again, the x-factor for the team. With UNC starting to tighten up on defense and points coming at a premium, Evans was able to generate offense himself, showing his ability to split screens and get to the hoop. Most importantly of all, he has really developed his ability to finish his shots once he is there. Evans ended the game with 13 points on 6-13 shooting.
Virginia had its work set out for them to have the opportunity to win, and the team more or less converted on all the keys to victory. UVA turned the ball over just 4 times, compared to UNC's 11. UVA got absolutely brutalized on the boards in Chapel Hill. Tonight, UNC still handily won that battle (earning offensive rebounds on 12 of 36 opportunities, 33%, compared to UVA's 5 of 41, 12%). But that easily beats the 50% of offensive boards that UVA allowed in the last meeting. Defensively, Tony Bennett declared before the game that winning would require an "uncommon effort." He got it. The Hoos were forced to go small all night because of the foul trouble to the team's big men. However, with the help of timely double teams, Mitchell, Atkins, or Scott was able to keep Zeller largely bottled up in the second half. Bennett even mixed in a possession or two of a 2-3 zone, a rarity in the team's man-defense mentality. UNC was held to 54 points in 62 possessions, their lowest point output and slowest game of the season.
I don't want to harp on the officiating too much...but it's difficult not to. While UVA could have still won the game with some timely shooting, the refs may have stolen this away with those two bad foul calls on Mike Scott and a phantom moving screen call against Mitchell, among others. The calls were miserable and temporarily sucked the life out of the game. The "Carolina Refs" stereotype just always seem to hold true on calls like these. The 50/50 balls went UNC's way. When John Henson scored on an alley-oop dunk, then stood over Joe Harris taunting him, I wondered what teams would immediately get stuck with a technical foul (no, I really don't find Henson to be a likable individual).
When asked for comment, Tony Bennett wisely said, "Right now it wouldn't be wise of me to comment on the calls but you know we had a chance. We had a chance." Mike Scott refused comment multiple times before claiming, "I didn't know I was that strong." UNC coach Roy Williams, on the other hand, commented, "I don't think that John is that good of an actor, and his face doesn't run into too many elbows. I'm not saying that it was flagrant, but it was a foul." I'll let you insert your own derogatory comment about Williams's character here.
Poor officiating or otherwise, Virginia had a chance to grab the big win. Admittedly, with a minute to play I was beginning to eye a path to the court, planning my route for when the clock hit zero and potentially jinxing us in the process. From a selfish perspective, missing my last chance at a "signature" home win and celebratory court-storming hurts badly. And I am sure the team is tired of coming up just short in these games.
There are two pieces of good news about UVA's 0-4 record against the ACC's top three. First, while 4 close losses are still just 4 notches in the L column, and rightfully so, they have to give fans confidence about future opportunities. They are at least partially the product of bad luck, which doesn't carry into the future, despite UVA fans' claims otherwise. This is obviously nothing that we can hang our hats on...but our record is surely not indicative of what our expectations should be going forward.
The other bright spot is that UVA has another chance to pick up a signature win in just a few days, when Florida State comes to town on Thursday. Virginia dropped a turnover-filled 58-55 heartbreaker just weeks ago in Tallahassee. (Apologies if I describe all of our losses as "heartbreakers." My heart is easily broken). Another sold out crowd awaits the Seminoles this time, in a game that will be preceded by emotional senior night festivities for Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski, and Assane Sene. A victory Thursday will lock up the team's tournament chances and be a great first step toward wiping away the bad taste of the UNC loss. That game tips off at 7PM and will be broadcast by ESPN or ESPN 2.
Virginia, sitting at 8-6 in the ACC, stays in good position to end the season with the 4-seed in the ACC tournament. NC State's overtime loss at Clemson drops them to 7-7 in conference. Miami, now 7-6, takes on Florida State in Coral Gables Sunday at 6 PM. Pull for the Seminoles in that one; a UM loss would mean that UVA would need a win in just one of its remaining two to clinch a first-round ACC bye. The Canes and Wolfpack still have to face each other in Raleigh. Then, NC State finishes its season at Virginia Tech, while Miami hosts Boston College. Remember, UVA has the head-to-head tiebreaker over both teams.
What is everyone's mindset after that loss? Be sure to leave your thoughts on the game, the atmosphere, favorite signs, the scintillating halftime show, and that pathetic, pathetic "dice race" in the comments.