Virginia, we learned again Sunday, is really good defensively.
North Carolina, we learned again Sunday, is not.
The Cavaliers frustrated the Tar Heels into a 37.3 shooting night – while connecting on 57.1 percent of their own 3-pointers -- to topple UNC 61-52 in both teams’ ACC opener.
It marked the Tar Heels’ (10-4, 0-1 ACC) first loss at John Paul Jones Arena in five tries, and they have now dropped three straight road games this season. Meanwhile, Virginia (11-3, 1-0) has now won two straight since its surprising defeat to Old Dominion.
Turning point: After a tight first half, UNC looked like it was on its way to pulling away just after halftime, when it opened the second half with a 9-2 run. But the Cavaliers, trailing 34-26, countered with a 20-6 breakaway to take as much as a 46-40 lead. Virginia never trailed again, closing the game on a 10-2 run.
Why Virginia won: The Cavs love to frustrate with both a deliberate pace and in-your-face defense, and they did both. Although UNC’s Reggie Bullock -- back after missing last weekend’s win over UNLV because of a concussion -- scored a season-high 22 points on 7-for-9 shooting, the rest of the team combined for a 12-for-42 outing.
In addition, Cavs junior Joe Harris had another big game (19 points, 7-for-11), and Akil Mitchell added 11 rebounds and seven points despite being a “game-time decision” after missing the previous two practices because of an ankle injury. And the return of senior point guard Jontel Evans, who had missed nine games this season with a foot injury, had to be a boost; he played 21 minutes, with eight points and six assists, off the bench.
Why UNC lost: The Tar Heels were trailing 53-50 with a little more than two minutes left when senior Dexter Strickland inexplicably pulled up for a jumper -- instead of trying to get the ball to Bullock, who had scored the team’s previous eight points -- and airballed it. Credit Virginia’s defense for some of the lack of poise; but it was another example of the Tar Heels rushing shots instead of patiently trying to find the right ones, something fans had already witnessed in previous losses this season.
After that miscue, the Tar Heels never got any closer.
What it means for Virginia: Those revised ACC predictions I made late last week -- the ones in which Virginia was inked in as finishing seventh in the league and UNC fourth? It’s a little too early to totally erase them, but it’s never too late to start pondering some tweaks after the Cavs’ performance.
What it means for UNC: The Tar Heels are still looking for a leader. … Bullock may need to become more selfish and take more shots. … Coach Roy Williams will again be stressing defense and toughness in practice. … The Tar Heels still have a lot of work to do.
Number to know: Notoriously slow-paced Virginia out-scored UNC 5-4 on fast break points. ‘Nuf said.
What’s next: The Cav play at Wake Forest on Wednesday, while the Tar Heels host Miami on Thursday.