Close only counts in horseshoes.
Despite being blown out by a combined 55 points in their last two games, the North Carolina Tar Heels gave an effort worthy of their uniform but ultimately didn't have enough.
Roger Mason Jr. scored 18 points, including a 9-10 performance from the free throw line, and the Virginia Cavaliers defeated UNC, 71-67, before a disappointed crowd of 20,079 at the Dean Smith Center.
Mason, the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading free throw shooter, salted the game away by knocking down seven of eight from the charity stripe over the final 7:48. Four of the freebies came in a 20 second span in the last minute after a pair of unnecessary fouls by UNC freshman Jackie Manuel.
"We didn't want to foul Mason; that was clear" UNC head coach Matt Doherty said about Manuel's fouls. "I hate to talk about inexperience, but there were some plays of inexperience down the stretch. I am trying to be delicate in saying that, but it is a mistake. We were not trying to foul Mason."
Trailing 37-33 at the intermission, Carolina opened the second half on fire. Brian Morrison nailed a trio of 3-pointers, Jason Capel contributed a jumper and two free throws and a jump hook by Kris Lang concluded a 15-3 run that gave the Tar Heels a 48-40 advantage with 14:20 left in the contest.
"We just went out and played," Morrison said of the impressive run. "We just made our open shots. We were focused and just went out and played, and the shots fell."
"We were making the right passes and taking (better shots)," said freshman Melvin Scott. "We wanted to get him open and get him some looks and just pushing the ball and hitting the open man."
The Cavaliers, however, quickly responded with a 10-3 run of their own to even the score at 50 with 12:30 left.
The teams traded baskets before a quick spurt put UVa ahead, 63-59, after Adam Hall nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing with 5:46 left. But a Brian Bersticker (four points) jam and Jawad Williams steal and layup evened the score again at 63 and with the crowd going nuts, the Heels were in perfect shape.
Perfection, however, doesn't describe how the Heels closed the game.
With a lid seemingly on the basket, the Heels went cold missing seven consecutive shots while the Wahoos built a four-point lead on a pair of bank shots by Mason and senior Chris Williams.
Lang missed a pair of free throws, three entry passes were swatted by the Hoos, offensive movement slowed and the players appeared to tighten. And on UNC's final possession, everything fell apart.
Trailing by the final margin with 20 seconds left, Adam Boone managed to get trapped near the right corner before getting the ball to Morrison, who also was trapped in the corner. Neither player got off a legitimate shot or found an open mate, and after a couple of ugly heaves before Capel's final attempted 3, the game ended and Carolina's unCarolina-like season sunk just a little deeper.
"It is hard because I really thought that our kids really dug deep and gave a great effort and were in position to beat a good basketball team," Doherty said about his team that fell to 5-8 overall and 1-3 in the ACC. "We just missed some shots during a key stretch in the second half."
Capel (14 points, seven rebounds and four assists) and Jawad Williams (13 points) were the only other Tar Heels to finish in double figures.
Chris Williams added 15 points for the Cavs, who improved to 10-2 overall and 1-2 in the ACC.
Despite the loss, however, there were positives to build on. UNC executed against UVa's swarming pressure defense, regularly breaking the press early, forcing Hoos' head coach Pete Gillen to pull back and settle into a zone.
"We watched some tape of last year's game against them and saw where we were able to beat their pressure and get some easy shots," Boone said. "So that was our plan. To be calm and beat the pressure and get some easy shots and it worked for us for a little while and they dropped back into a zone."
Williams gave the Heels a lift in the first half by tallying 11 points, including knocking down a pair of 3-pointers.
"I just felt comfortable out there," the freshman from Cleveland said. "I like that (top of the key) shot and just knocked them down."
Appearing his healthiest in more than a month, Lang showed some old form with 18 points, including 13 in the final period.
Despite his late errors, Manuel had perhaps his best floor game, grabbing seven rebounds, dishing out four assists compared to one turnover and scoring seven points.
And of course the Heels' overall effort. Considering the beating the team has taken by the national media this week and the recent ugly losses, Carolina played with energy throughout the game. The sellout crowd also contributed and showed its approval with constant encouragement.
"I am proud of our guys and I really want to thank our crowd because a lot has been said about our fans," Doherty said. "But, I'll tell you what, we had 20,000 very supportive fans out there that really gave our team a lift, and I appreciate that greatly."
"The fans were excellent," Lang said. "They have been positive and helped us in a tough game."
It wasn't a victory, but considering how things have been, thinking in terms of horseshoes to build confidence might be the way for this team to operate for now.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.