Six weeks ago, UNC built a 36-28 lead with 16:25 remaining. At that moment, the Tar Heels, according to several accounts in the postgame locker room, relaxed. They took their foot off the pedal. They exhaled. Insert any applicable cliché in this space.
Joe Harris responded with a 3-pointer on Virginia’s next possession and thus started UNC’s free fall to a difficult ACC-opening loss that included poor offensive sets, forced shots and botched defensive assignments.
On Saturday, North Carolina built an 8-point lead, this time with 16:20 to play. And once again, Harris drained a 3-pointer on Virginia’s next possession. Reggie Bullock answered with a trey 16 seconds later. Harris would hit two more 3-pointers over the next two-and-a-half minutes, but each time a Tar Heel – first P.J. Hairston and then Marcus Paige – retorted with a 3-pointer.
After faltering so completely in Charlottesville, North Carolina played with poise and hit critical shot after shot to hold off the Cavaliers down the stretch.
Roy Williams’s explanation for the difference in how the pair of games played out – “We made shots” – was likely a little too simplistic. Valid for sure, but the panic that was obvious at John Paul Jones Arena was replaced with confidence at the Smith Center.
“I think we showed some growth as a team tonight,” Marcus Paige told reporters following the game. “Especially in the second half when Harris started to get hot. We really buckled down instead of falling apart, which we have done a couple of times this year. We decided to come together and get some stops and I think that shows maturity for our basketball team.”
P.J. Hairston, who scored a career-high 29 points, said that the Tar Heels are “definitely” playing with more poise and composure now then they were last month.
“Look at the Duke game,” Hairston said. “Duke went on its run and we came back and played with poise and settled their run down and got right back in the game. Same thing with Virginia. They jumped out to a [13-4] lead, but we were poised and took our time and didn’t make any silly mistakes. We just took it one possession at a time.”
Virginia cut UNC’s lead to 66-59 with 9:56 to play, but Paige drilled a 3-pointer 11 seconds later to give the Tar Heels a 10-point lead. The Cavaliers would scratch back within single digits one more time – for only 13 seconds – on the heels of a 9-0 run.
UNC didn’t stumble. It absorbed the run and proceeded to outscore its opponent 10-7 over the final 193 seconds.