COLUMN: Yes, it was a reasonable loss, but Virginia exposed so many weaknesses

BROOKLYN — The North Carolina men's basketball team had a remarkable run in the 2018 ACC Tournament. The No. 6 seed Tar Heels (25-10, 11-7) beat Syracuse, Miami and Duke before falling to No. 1 seed Virginia (31-2, 17-1) in a 71-63 loss in the title game.

The results strengthened their seeding in the NCAA Tournament (likely earning the Tar Heels a No. 2 seed on Selection Sunday) and the team picked up three more Quadrant-1 wins to boost their NCAA-best total to 13.

But Saturday night was still a loss, the Tar Heels' 10th on the season — the team's most since 2014-2015.

“We didn’t do everything we needed to do to win,” Cameron Johnson said. “They made more plays than us in the end. That’s all that it comes out to.”

 Kenny Williams (24) said UNC's defense didn't match its same level of intensity as it did in the previous three games. In Saturday's ACC Tournament final loss to Virginia, that made all the difference. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Kenny Williams (24) said UNC's defense didn't match its same level of intensity as it did in the previous three games. In Saturday's ACC Tournament final loss to Virginia, that made all the difference. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Sure, it was a loss that was expected and excusable. Virginia will most likely be the top overall seed in the Big Dance and boasts the best winning percentage (93.9 percent) in the country. Opponent-wise, it was the best possible loss a team could have.

Still, losses expose weaknesses, and it’s important to note what went wrong for Carolina Saturday night, even against a team of Virginia’s caliber.

First, UNC couldn’t make stops on defense when it needed to. Virginia’s 71-point outing won’t blow anyone away, but against the nation’s top defense, every point matters.

“I think our defense took a lot of steps forward (this week),” Kenny Williams said. “But we had a bit of a letdown tonight.”

In the three-game stretch before the tournament final, UNC had held Syracuse and Miami to 59 and 65 points and forced 18 turnovers against Duke.

Against Virginia, the Tar Heels forced only four turnovers and allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 53 percent from beyond the arc.

Every time Carolina threatened to tie the game, Virginia and ACC Tournament MVP Kyle Guy had an answer. The Cavaliers scored in a variety of ways: open 3-pointers, coming off screens and dunks inside.

Whatever they wanted, the Cavaliers got. And, if UNC wants to win its next six games, that can’t happen again.

Mistakes also doomed the Heels. Virginia’s slow pace and methodical approach made every possession matter even more than a usual game for the Tar Heels.

Carolina set a bad precedent when Luke Maye threw an errant pass behind Joel Berry and past the half court line for an over-and-back on UNC’s first possession of the night.  

 After a strong outing on Friday, Garrison Brooks (15) missed a critical layup late in Saturday's loss to Virginia that hurt momentum for UNC. | Photo by Caleb Jones

After a strong outing on Friday, Garrison Brooks (15) missed a critical layup late in Saturday's loss to Virginia that hurt momentum for UNC. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Perhaps no mistake was bigger than freshman Garrison Brooks’ missed lay-up with 5:33 left and UNC down seven. The wide-open miss that was set up by a beautiful Theo Pinson pass would’ve cut the UVA lead to five and given Carolina some momentum heading into the final stretch.

Instead, it seemed to deflate Tar Heel players and mentally knocked Brooks out of the game. By the time UNC did cut the lead down to five, there was only 1:06 remaining, and it was too late.

So yes, it was a loss to the nation’s best team in Virginia. And yes, it followed a three-game, three-day win streak. And yes, the past four Carolina national championship teams didn’t win the conference tournament.

But it was still a loss. And losses always mean something, no matter the circumstances.

What will this one mean for the 10-loss team with the nation’s top resume?

Only time will tell. 

@jleland_

Photos by Caleb Jones