While the Tar Heels struggled the entire evening to create open looks, they earned trips to the free throw line in the first half by attacking the rim. Despite shooting just 32.0 percent (8-of-25) in the opening 20 minutes, UNC attempted eight more free throws than Virginia (12-4).
North Carolina was also aggressive defensively and on the boards through the first 24 minutes, resulting in significant advantages in two specialty statistical categories – points off turnovers (14-5) and second-chance points (7-0).
Trailing 25-24 at halftime, Virginia managed just two field goal attempts in its first four possessions of the second half, making one while committing turnovers on the other two trips down the floor. UNC, on the other hand, connected on five of its first six field goals in building a 36-28 lead with 16:25 remaining.
And then the Tar Heels, ever so slightly, released the throttle.
Joe Harris drilled a wide-open 3-pointer on Virginia’s ensuing possession and the Cavaliers would close the game on a 33-16 run.
“As a team, I feel like we did kind of let up,” sophomore guard P.J. Hairston told reporters following the game. “We were up eight and thought we had a comfortable lead, but you always have to keep playing. And we didn’t do that as a team.”
During the final 16:25, Virginia shot 50 percent from the floor and outscored UNC in points off turnovers (6-3) and second-chance points (6-4). The most glaring statistic that highlights the switch of the aggressor title occurred at the free throw line. The Tar Heels endured a stretch of 25:21 without a free throw attempt, including the first 19:37 of the second half.
Virginia, meanwhile, fought its way to the charity stripe 14 times in the final 14 minutes.
“I think we just laid back and allowed them to get into and run their offensive sets,” sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo said. “I think the main thing was dribble penetration. They were really getting into the lane and kicking it out to [Evan] Nolte, [Paul] Jesperson and Harris. That really hurt us down the stretch.”
While the Cavaliers were warming up offensively, the Tar Heels were tightening up.
“I think we just got complacent on the offensive end,” McAdoo said. “Everything was coming so easy, especially in the very beginning of the second half. And then they started hitting shots and everyone tried to do it on their own. That didn’t work out.”
Junior wing Reggie Bullock, who scored a game-high 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting (4-of-6 from 3), pointed to mental breakdowns as the culprit for UNC’s second-half collapse. On the offensive end, the Tar Heels were lazy on the pass, too often setting for outside shots instead of attacking the rim.
Defensively, miscues resulted in open Virginia looks from the perimeter and available creases for penetration. On one possession, Hairston cheated off Nolte to help defend Justin Anderson in the post, even though UNC’s scouting report placed a stronger emphasis on defending the 3-ball. Nolte knocked down the open trey before Hairston could scramble back out.
The Cavaliers committed 11 turnovers in the opening 23 minutes and posted a 7-0 assist-turnover ratio the remainder of the game, thanks to Jontel Evans’s 6-0 assist-turnover effort in the second half.
“For us, it was more of a breakdown on both ends of the court,” Roy Williams said when asked about the momentum change after his team went up eight points.
North Carolina’s closing effort raised plenty of questions about the team’s intensity level, or lack thereof, when compared to last week’s win over No. 20 UNLV.
When asked about that difference, McAdoo replied: “I don’t know, man, honestly. I wish I knew.”
Bullock told reporters that his team needed to be “100 percent tougher than we are right now.”
To their credit, the Tar Heels refused to blame the letdown on their youth. Hairston noted that if UNC can play 40 minutes at a high level against a team like UNLV, then it should be able to play that way against any opponent on the schedule.
Williams wasn’t offering up any excuses during his postgame press conference, either.
“ACC basketball, on the road, and all of those are good excuses, but we just didn’t frickin’ play,” the 10th-year UNC head coach said.
The Tar Heels were originally scheduled to have Monday off. Williams, however, told his team in the locker room following the game that practice would be Monday afternoon.
There’s little time for a day off with so much work to be done.
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