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Cavaliers Stumble Late in 54-51 Loss to Tar Heels

Not even a strong showing from Joe Harris (12), who hit his first three-pointer since breaking his non-shooting hand, could lift Virginia to victory against James Michael McAdoo (43) and No. 7 North Carolina. (AP photo/timesunion.com)

A powerful force of nature rolled through Charlottesville Saturday evening, one more powerful even than the earthquake or the “hurricane” that students experienced early in the school year.

With 7:08 remaining, North Carolina’s John Henson soared over Virginia guard Joe Harris to receive an inbounds pass with just two seconds left on the shot clock. The resulting thunderous slam, which earned its own segment on SportsCenter Saturday night, put the Tar Heels up 48-45 and took much of the air out of Virginia’s sails as the seventh-ranked Tar Heels overcame a rough shooting night and stingy defense by the Cavaliers to earn a 54-51 victory in what North Carolina coach Roy Williams called “a tough-ass game.”

Despite the momentum shift following the dunk by Henson, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, the Cavaliers were not done, as Harris converted a putback on an offensive rebound just over a minute later to give Virginia what would be its last lead of the contest at 49-48. When the Tar Heels committed an uncharacteristic backcourt violation a minute after that, Virginia fans started to get back in the game, even though Carolina had retaken the lead at that point, believing that their squad had a real chance to pull off what would have been a momentous upset in front of ESPN’s cameras.

But North Carolina center Tyler Zeller saved four of his six second-half points for the stretch run, converting what proved to be the game-winner with 4:10 to play, then sealing the win with 13.3 seconds left when he pump-faked around Virginia’s Akil Mitchell and coasted to the basket for a dunk. The seven-foot senior finished with a game-high 20 points, added six rebounds, and was the only player to shoot better than 50% from the floor, going 7-for-11.

Foul trouble plagued Virginia throughout the game, affecting all three of Virginia’s forwards, who picked up at least two fouls apiece in the first period. Mitchell, a sophomore, picked up his second whistle just over eight minutes into the game, then picked up a third foul with 4:17 to go until halftime. Freshman reserve Darion Atkins also picked up two fouls before the break.

But the worst effect was felt by Virginia star Mike Scott, who picked up his second foul with 8:44 before halftime, then picked up his fourth foul with a whopping 12 minutes left in regulation. The senior, who is in contention for ACC Player of the Year honors, was off his rhythm the entire game, shooting a woeful 3-for-13 from the field and playing tentatively, settling for jumpers instead of attacking the paint, and struggling to uphold Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s physical defensive philosophy.

“The foul trouble affected us a little bit defensively,” Bennett said in his postgame press conference. “We needed to play with everything we had and fight for position. I thought at times we were a little tentative down low, were afraid to come off and help, we just didn’t have the right kind of anticipation defensively when they got a couple dunks at the rim in crucial times.”

But in a game interrupted early and often by the officials’ whistles, Bennett refused to put blame on the referees.

“Right now it wouldn’t be wise to comment on the calls,” he said when asked about the effect of the crucial second-half whistles, instead focusing on missed opportunities. “You know, we had a chance…some of our breakdowns late defensively cost us.”

Another issue for Virginia came in the form of a poor shooting performance. Senior guard Sammy Zeglinski had a strong showing in the first half, scoring 11 points on three three-pointers, including a buzzer-beater to send the Cavaliers to the locker room up four. But Zeglinski disappeared in the second half, going 0-for-5 from the floor after the break, including a miss from behind the arc with six seconds left that would have tied the game.

“We gotta be able to make a few more of those,” Bennett said of the team’s shooting performance.

The Cavaliers went 1-for-11 from deep after halftime, in a showing eerily reminiscent of Virginia’s three-less performance against Duke in January, when the Cavaliers took a four-point halftime lead, then struggled from the field after the break and lost to an ACC powerhouse by just three points.

But not all was negative for Virginia. Bennett was particularly pleased with the play of Harris, who put forth a solid effort despite strapping a splint on his broken left hand for yet another game. The sophomore scored 12 points, hitting two three-pointers, and filled the stat sheet with five rebounds, three assists, and even three blocks, a statistic that is surprising considering that Harris spent much of the game guarding Carolina star Harrison Barnes and even Henson for a while when Scott was out of the game.

“Joe was in there knocking around in your face,” Bennett said after the game. “I mean, he’s tough, which is what we need to continue to add to this program.”

Another bright spot was the play of the Cavalier defense in limiting Barnes, perhaps Scott’s biggest competition for ACC Player of the Year, and standout point guard Kendall Marshall, who entered the game second in Division I in assists per game (9.8). Barnes struggled from the floor, going 3-for-15 and 0-for-5 from deep en route to scoring just seven points, and Marshall mustered only one made free throw the entire game. The tandem hurt Virginia in other ways though, namely Barnes’s nine rebounds, which contributed to a 48-29 advantage on the boards by the Tar Heels.

Senior point guard Jontel Evans led the Cavaliers with 13 points, most of them coming on slashing drives through the lane, and Scott and Atkins combined for 13 rebounds despite mustering just eight points and seven fouls.

The Cavaliers faced the Tar Heels for the second time this season without junior center Assane Sene, who has missed the last several weeks due to injury. It obviously can’t be predicted what impact Sene might have had in the two contests, particularly in defending against Zeller, who averaged 22.5 points and 7.5 rebounds against the Cavaliers this season, but Virginia fans might get to find out, depending on what happens in the ACC tournament, which Sene will potentially be back for.

Virginia finishes the regular season with two ACC rematches, facing No. 16 Florida State Thursday in the last home contest of the season before closing the season against rival Maryland March 4. The Seminoles defeated Virginia 58-55 in Tallahassee three weeks ago, while the Cavaliers dismantled Maryland at home last week, winning 71-44.

North Carolina faces Maryland Wednesday before making the short trip to Durham for a must-see rematch with No. 4 Duke March 3.

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