But a Cavaliers’ conquest of North Carolina turning on a blocked shot rooted in raw athleticism is, shall we say, unusual.
Historically, the Tar Heels are simply better, bigger, faster and stronger than not only Virginia but also most everyone else they play. That is not the case this season.
The combination of Carolina’s decline and the Cavaliers’ progress was evident Sunday as Virginia won the teams’ ACC opener 61-52 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“They were better than we were offensively, they we were better than we were defensively,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “More alert, more aggressive.”
Especially during the final 16-plus minutes, when Virginia outscored Carolina 33-16 to erase an eight-point deficit and limit the Tar Heels to a season-low in points.
The margin was 36-31 when a Cavaliers defensive breakdown left James Michael McAdoo open for what appeared an uncontested dunk. But Darion Atkins flew in from behind to deny McAdoo’s soft attempt at the rim.
“I felt like it gave us a lot of energy and boosted our morale,” Atkins said of his play.
Indeed, Virginia promptly scored on an Akil Mitchell stickback, Paul Jesperson 3-pointer and Joe Harris drive to complete a 10-0 binge and take a 38-36 lead.
“We were out of position, but Darion just made the great play,” Bennett said. “That definitely ignited us, and then I thought our defense took hold, and then they had to earn most of what they got the rest of the night.”
Bennett was none too pleased at his team’s skittish second-half start, which included two Teven Jones turnovers. But the Cavaliers were turnover-free the final 16-plus minutes.
“I think because of their inexperience we were able to climb back in,” Bennett said, “whereas an experienced team might make you pay for that and not let you back in.”
Eight of the 10 Tar Heels who played are freshmen or sophomores, and only one, Reggie Bullock, started more than three games on last season’s Elite Eight squad headlined by Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.
The difference for Carolina showed on the backboards. Last year, as they usually do, the Tar Heels bludgeoned the Cavaliers on the glass, outrebounding them by 20 and 19. Sunday the margin was a meager 35-32.
So clearly this isn’t a vintage Carolina edition. It’s not even a top-25 squad.
But the Tar Heels (10-4) still arrived at JPJ averaging an ACC-best 83.6 points. The Cavaliers (11-3), meanwhile, led the league in scoring defense at 50.7 points per game.
For you connoisseurs of new-aged stats: According to Ken Pomeroy, Carolina started Sunday averaging a national-high 76.7 possessions. Conversely, Virginia’s norm of 60.9 ranked 343rd among Division I’s 347 teams.
My unofficial count had both teams with 63 possessions Sunday. Advantage: Virginia.
“Everybody knows against Carolina you have to make them play against a set defense,” Bennett said. “We got on the edge at times where I didn’t think we were back (on defense) with enough alertness.”
Forcing a team to play against your set defense is beaucoup easier when you’re making shots, and the Cavaliers’ 52-percent, second-half accuracy was critical. Much of that credit goes to senior point guard Jontel Evans, who returned from a four-game absence due to a foot injury.
Evans contributed eight points and six assists in 21 minutes. He committed three turnovers, but none after halftime.
“I thought in the second half Jontel was really big for them,” Williams said. “We couldn’t stop him getting to the basket.”
Like Atkins, Evans showed that Virginia can match Carolina’s athleticism. The Tar Heels have no one who can match his quickness, and Evans created for himself and others.
“Those three turnovers in the first half, that wasn’t me,” Evans said. “I worked my butt off all four years to be a complete point guard, a neck-up point guard, and I think it showed in the second half.”
“He’s not where he needs to be defensively,” Bennett said of Evans. “(But) he got us some great looks, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Harris was Virginia’s only double-digit scorer with 19, but five others scored at least six – freshman Evan Nolte’s three 3-pointers were XXL – as the Cavaliers won their ACC opener for the fifth consecutive year.
Bennett said he allowed his player about 15 seconds of locker room celebration, which, with 17 league games remaining, sounds reasonable.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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