First, some good news: Yes, Carolina men’s basketball is 1-2 in conference and has dropped two in a row, but this was always going to be a tough stretch, with back to back games on the road against Top 25 teams. Carolina faces just one team currently in the Top 25 for the remainder of January —Clemson, twice, on January 16 and 30— and so has the opportunity to course-correct after a one-point loss to the 24th-ranked Seminoles and a 12-point loss at no. 8 Virginia.
There are 15 games left in conference play; the Tar Heels have plenty of time to make up ground. The question is, will they show the initiative and put in the effort to actually do it?
Saturday’s loss at John Paul Jones Arena was not entirely unexpected; Carolina has not won here since 2012. What was troubling was the little stats that added up to that 61-49 loss. The Tar Heels turned the ball over 19 times. Virginia scored 25 points off of those turnovers. Carolina scored just 12 points off of 19 offensive rebounds, just 14 total points in the paint. Just eight made two-point field goals, and eight made threes. Only five Tar Heels scored from the field at all. Virginia’s harassing pack-line defense, their tremendous slides, their outstanding effort completely confounded the Tar Heels, a team that, given the leadership and what they’ve accomplished over the last two seasons, ought to be nearly un-flusterable. Yet Virginia forced Carolina into three shot-clock violations and several more last-ditch, low-percentage shot attempts.
These were two talented teams that have gone back and forth over the last several seasons, that have competed hard and competed for conference championships. The conversation after the game was two sides of the same coin.
“We talked about having an undivided mind today, knowing we had to put our best against their best, and we played some really good defense,” Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett said. “The guys did a good job individually, and I think the crowd helped out with some of those shot clock violations, as did individual on-ball slides and bothering shots.”
“It was a big ol’ butt-kicking,” Roy Williams said moments later. “That’s all it was. Their defense was a million times stronger than our offense. We didn’t have very good movement. Instead of working to get shots, we sort of tried to go one on one way too many times. We didn’t get as much as we needed to of taking the ball to the basket. But their defense was really good.”
Tar Heels not named Joel Berry or Kenny Williams shot 5-23 from the field on Saturday, as active Cavalier hands disrupted or altered Tar Heel shots and forced lousy attempts. The ACC’s eighth-best three-point shooting team took 23 shots from behind the arc; players not named Williams or Berry made two of nine attempts.
Berry is good, but this is twice now that he’s shouldered the offensive load late in big games, with little help. Williams and Johnson had a made field goal apiece for Carolina in the second half, and Berry had five. And that was it for the second half, when the Tar Heels were trying to overcome a seven-point deficit.
And so Carolina lost by 12 as the Cavaliers built on that lead, got offensive rebounds, capitalized on Tar Heel turnovers and just played smarter. Carolina has three days before Boston College comes to town, three days before the opportunity to even the conference record. But there is work to do, mentally as much as in any other area.
“I just think it’s effort,” said Berry, who himself, at least, did not lack effort, “Going out there, knowing that teams are going to come at us. We’re the defending national champions and we’re North Carolina, and so it’s a big-time game each and every time that we go out there, and so the biggest thing what we’re always talking about and, what Coach is always talking about is, you can make mistakes as long as you’re doing it with effort and competing, and I think that we need to get some more guys to buy in and compete on the defensive end and just overall, just give it your all when you get out there on the floor.”
“The younger guys are watching us,” said fellow senior Theo Pinson. “Me, Joel, Kenny, Luke - (the younger players will) see how we react from this, and we’ve got to lead them. “We’ve got to just get back to work tomorrow. That’s the bottom line. You’ve got so many more games left. You can’t sulk on these past two losses that we had, and we just have to get back to the drawing board and get better.”
Carolina has time, has the talent and coaching to dig out of this rut. But it will take effort.
Photos by Smith Hardy