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Virginia shows moxie in comeback win over North Carolina

Down seven on the road, the Cavaliers clawed back for a huge road win.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With North Carolina on a 20-7 run and leading 46-43 with 12:53 to play, the Tar Heels held all the momentum. Virginia’s players looked shaken as their once-nine-point lead shrank, dwindled, and disappeared at the hands of the No. 8 Tar Heels. Body language didn’t favor the road team, and the Carolina blue-clad fans jumped up and down and rained cheers down onto the court.

The No. 4 Cavaliers wouldn’t quit, however.

“We just kept challenging,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said after the game. “Hang in there, get a stop. You’re still in it. Ty [Jerome] said to relax.”

And relax they did. After Braxton Key turned the ball over with 12:24 to play — Virginia’s 10th as a team in the game — the Hoos wouldn’t give the ball away again. North Carolina built their lead to as many as seven points with 7:51 remaining in the game, but the Cavaliers never wavered or flustered.

“We just knew we had to take care of the ball down the stretch, especially against a team like that,” Jerome said of Virginia’s poise late in the game. Coach Bennett commented that he channeled his father, raising his voice in the huddle. Jerome laughed when asked about it, saying, “He just started screaming. I tried to keep everyone calm...he started losing it a little bit so I brought the team together and told them to stay calm.”

Jerome, who was battling a back injury that has been bothering him since the game at NC State, finished with his second career double-double (and second of the season), with 15 points and 11 assists. He had just two turnovers, both coming in the first 6:47 of the game.

Virginia closed the game on a 21-6 run that spanned the final eight minutes as Guy hit three of his five made three-pointers. On his final three of the game — which put the Hoos up by six with 1:10 remaining — Guy showed an uncharacteristic level of emotion.

Guy came into Monday night’s game on a bit of a cold spell, going 6-for-22 from three and averaging 12 points per game in a three-game stretch that included contests at NC State, and against Miami and Duke. “Yeah, I had been getting in my head a little bit the past, you know, maybe two weeks or so, just trying to do too much and have a home run play all the time. I had a little stretch like that today again when I missed like three shots and I was about to get in my head but I thought, ‘you know what, eff it. Here we go.’”

He had a little encouragement in the heckling department from a group of UNC students in the front row that came to the game donning bright yellow jerseys emblazoned with ‘UMBC’. Much like when he was faced with the same on the road at Maryland, Guy wasn’t bothered by it.

“I wanted to go high five them after we won so bad,” he said after the game. “I calmed down, and I don’t need to do that. Just smile and wave.”

The game played out — especially the last quarter — more like a typical Virginia basketball game. Virginia got stops, didn’t turn the ball over, and made buckets at an efficient level. “We had some chances to win the game, but they made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said in his opening statement after the game. “I think their defense was better than our offense. Their offense was better than our defense.”

Virginia’s defense was stifling, and getting back to their defensive roots helped spark the offense. The Hoos held UNC to their lowest points output of the season (a direct result of the game being played in 60 possessions) as the Tar Heels shot 35% from the field. Freshman Coby White was effusive with his praise of the Pack Line:

“They’re everywhere on the court,” he said. “Anywhere you’re trying to drive, they’re there. They are help side. They’re in (the) gap. They stay in front of the ball. It’s the ideal defense that I feel every team should have.”

This was arguably one of the better games coached by Tony Bennett this season, if not in recent years. Personnel changes, especially in the second half, spread out the offense and kept things hard on the Tar Heels. De’Andre Hunter (20 points, 7-for-10 from the field, 3-for-3 from three, five rebounds) was aggressive but didn’t force the issue with both his assists coming in the final six minutes of the game. Jerome dished three of his 11 assists in the final 7:26 of the game and scored six of his 15 points.

And Coach Bennett had some tricks up his sleeve. With Virginia leading by two late, it looked as though the Hoos were running their go-to elevator screen for Guy. Only...they didn’t:

Late in the game, Jack Salt made way for the longer and more offensively dangerous Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff, especially as their length could bother UNC’s big men and perimeter shooting.

First year guard Kihei Clark got the start with Diakite recovering from a collision with teammate De’Andre Hunter in Saturday’s game against Duke. Clark got off to a hot start, hitting a three and getting a steal (which led to a Guy three) in the first 2:27 of the game. He finished with a team-high three steals and had two assists in the win, one of which was highlight-reel worthy.

Braxton Key played 22 minutes and struggled offensively — just one point on a free throw —but he pulled down a team-high six rebounds and blocked one shot as he made things miserable for North Carolina on offense.

All-in-all, this was more reminiscent of the Virginia team that fans had gotten used to earlier in the season. It took all the grit and moxie they had to withstand UNC’s run and battle back for a hard fought victory. After a quick turnaround following the game with Duke on Saturday and injury issues, Virginia had plenty of excuses to drop a close game on the road. They didn’t, and a win like this will pay dividends later in the season.