CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tony Bennett's postmortem Saturday began and ended with questions about foul trouble. Virginia's coach wisely declined the bait.
Sure, early fouls by post players Mike Scott and Akil Mitchell were the last thing the 19th-ranked Cavaliers needed against fifth-ranked North Carolina. And yes, those fouls forced Bennett to juggle an already depleted roster.
But Virginia's 70-52 loss at the Dean Dome didn't hinge on referees' whistles. No, the story was the Tar Heels' rebounding domination.
Carolina outboarded Virginia 52-32, by 23-8 on the offensive end. The margins were even more glaring after halftime: 29-15 overall, 14-3 on the offensive backboard.
The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin and are taller than the Cavaliers at every position. But neither Bennett nor his players was interested in that excuse.
"We can't have games like this," Scott said after his 18-point, six-rebound effort.
"For us to have a chance in a game like this, you've got to do a better job on the glass," Bennett said. "For whatever reason, we struggled. We certainly tried to work at it preparing for them, but it was alarming how many second shots they got, third shots.
"They're a terrific offensive rebounding team, but you can't allow that many opportunities. You have to have your guards come back and help out. There were three or four times where we just forgot to block out.
"There's going to be some great plays where you're going to be in position, and they're just going to make an athletic play over the top, and we'll live with that. But the ones where we didn't do our part, those are the ones that I have a hard time dealing with."
Carolina's offensive rebounds came from the usual suspects as 7-foot Tyler Zeller, 6-11 John Henson and 6-8 Harrison Barnes combined for 14. Zeller scored a game-high 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting as the Tar Heels' other starters shot 11-of-41.
Virginia (19-5, 6-4 ACC) had not lost a game by more than three points this season, but after Scott's dunk trimmed Carolina's lead to 45-43 with 13:38 remaining, the Cavaliers made only four more field goals.
The Tar Heels (21-4, 8-2 ACC) scored 23 points off their offensive rebounds, including six straight early in the second half. Even reserve Justin Watts had a tip-in when Joe Harris failed to block out.
"As the game wore on … we got tired and it affected us mentally in our execution," Bennett said. "Soft's not the right word. But we just didn't have the same kind of toughness and focus that was required and that we had early. We have to learn to play in that situation."
Saturday was Virginia's seventh game without 7-foot senior Assane Sene (ankle), and never has his absence loomed larger. He's an excellent help-side defender and gives Bennett four capable post players along with Scott, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins.
"Just that size and another body are important," Bennett said. "Help defense. They got some drives in the second half where we just broke down and they went right to the rim and we weren't even aware of it. We gave them a few too many easy ones to make that one competitive."
With Jontel Evans doing his best Jeremy Lin impression — "Someone's going to give him a max contract soon," Evans said — and slicing through the defense, Virginia led by as many as seven points in the first half.
That challenge was precisely what Carolina coach Roy Williams wanted in the wake of his team's disheartening 85-84 loss to Duke on Wednesday.
"You don't want to play someone you'll beat by 60," Williams said. "That would give you false confidence. I wanted to be tested."
That the Tar Heels were, but not for nearly long enough to suit Bennett.
"The foul trouble affected it certainly," he said. "But you're going to be in those situations. We've got to figure out ways to execute and be sound even if we have four guards on the floor, or if Mike's off the floor. …
"I hope this will be a lesson well-served. We work on it every day but hopefully they'll be more attentive now when we're working on our rebounding and blocking out."
How attentive we'll find out Feb. 25, when these teams stage a rematch in Charlottesville.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times