CHARLOTTESVILLE — With North Carolina clinging to a 1-point lead in the final minute at Virginia on Saturday, the ACC's two best players commanded center stage.
The Cavaliers' Mike Scott missed.
The Tar Heels' Tyler Zeller did not.
North Carolina 54, Virginia 51.
Not to suggest a game with myriad hairpin turns and questionable whistles hinged solely on two plays. But when Scott misfired on a right-corner 3-pointer, and Zeller dunked left-handed after pump-faking Akil Mitchell into the rafters, the die was cast.
"I made a huge mistake there," Mitchell said. "I figured the shot clock was running out and I'd contest the shot."
Mitchell is right. The shot clock was about to expire. But the 7-foot Zeller (game-high 20 points) reacted with the poise you'd expect from a senior and college basketball's Academic All-American of the Year. He pump-faked from about 15 feet, ducked under Mitchell and thundered down the lane for the decisive points with 13.3 seconds remaining.
"I feel if Akil didn't leave his feet we'd probably be in here celebrating right now," point guard Jontel Evans said.
"We know he's not a threat out there," Scott said of Zeller. "Let him shoot it."
Understand that's frustration talking. Evans and Scott are stand-up leaders not prone to calling out teammates. But to a man, the 25th-ranked Cavaliers believe they should have beaten the seventh-ranked Tar Heels and avenged an 18-point defeat to them two weeks ago in Chapel Hill.
And they have a case.
After making six of its first 13 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc, Virginia (21-7, 8-6 ACC) missed its final 10, including an open look by Sammy Zeglinski from the left corner after Zeller's dunk. The play, out of a timeout, was designed for Joe Harris, but he and Zeglinski adjusted perfectly to Carolina's defense.
Also crushing to the Cavaliers: Scott, the ACC's field-goal percentage leader at 58.8, was 3-for-13 and limited to 22 minutes, his fewest in a conference game this season. The culprit was early and constant foul trouble — Carolina attempted 23 free throws, Virginia six.
"I'll have to watch the tape," Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. "Right now it wouldn't be wise for me to comment on the calls."
Not unless he wants a reprimand from league HQ.
The whistle that loomed largest was the fourth foul on Scott, which came with 12:30 remaining and Virginia leading 41-37. Carolina's James Michael McAdoo missed a shot, and in the rebound scrum, Scott pivoted with his elbows out. Tar Heels forward John Henson sold what little contact there was.
"I thought I boxed him out," Scott said. "But I guess I was too aggressive."
And Henson's staggered reaction?
"I didn't know I was that strong," Scott said wryly.
With Scott, Mitchell and Darion Atkins saddled with foul problems for the second time in as many games against Carolina, Bennett played four guards for much of the afternoon and even abandoned man-to-man defense for some zone.
"They're just too big for us to be going small," Evans said.
"There was not much else we could do," Bennett said.
One play embodied the Tar Heels' physical superiority.
With 7:08 left, the teams broke for a television timeout. Carolina (25-4, 12-2) had possession under its own bucket with only two seconds showing on the shot clock.
Inbounding from the left of the rim, Kendall Marshall threw a lob that the 6-foot-11 Henson snatched with his left hand and dunked over the 6-6 Harris.
Virginia can take plenty from this game.
* The Cavaliers' rebounding deficit was 19, only one less than in the teams' first encounter, but they limited the Tar Heels to five offensive boards, 18 fewer than two weeks ago.
* Harris, who had scored only 10 points combined in the three games since breaking his left hand at Carolina, scored 12 on 5-of-10 shooting and added five rebounds, three assists and a career-high three blocked shots. He also defended effectively against Harrison Barnes, who missed 12 of his 15 shots.
* Evans (13 points, five rebounds, three assists, no turnovers) completely outplayed his former Boo Williams AAU teammate Marshall (one point on 0-for-6 shooting, six assists, three rebounds and two turnovers).
* Virginia limited the nation's No. 2 scoring team to a season-low in points, 29 below its average.
* The Cavaliers committed a season-low four turnovers.
But for all those positives, the locker room was very downcast.
"It really stings," Evans said.
Recalling the 70-52 loss at Carolina, Mitchell said, "I definitely feel worse after this one."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times