CHAPEL HILL — For five frantic minutes midway through the second half Monday, the North Carolina basketball team was off to the races — something that doesn’t happen often against a Virginia team that prefers the pace of a leisurely jog along Daytona beach to that of the Daytona 500.
The Tar Heels got the Cavaliers out of their comfort zone and sent the Smith Center crowd into a frenzy with a fast-paced run that flipped an eight-point deficit into a six point lead.
But the joyride didn’t last.
Just when it seemed as though No. 8 UNC might be ready to take over, No. 4 UVa. slammed on the brakes of both the Tar Heels’ momentum and their seven-game winning streak.
Taking advantage of an injury that kept star Cam Johnson off the court for a pivotal late stretch and riding the hot shooting of All-ACC guard Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers put together an impressive spurt of their own to come away with a 69-61 win in a battle of top 10 teams.
“At the start of the second half we got a lot of stops and we were able to run out a little bit,” senior guard Kenny Williams said of the 17-3 run that staked UNC to a 49-43 lead with 12:05 to go. “Then they kind of got back to what they do. They made it hard for us and we just didn’t respond the way we should have on either the offensive end or the defensive end.”
The Tar Heels (19-5, 9-2) hung tough for awhile after the tempo change, still holding a 55-52 lead with 6½ minutes left when Johnson crashed to the floor in pain while battling UVa’s De’Andre Hunter for a loose ball.
He made a quick exit to the locker room to receive treatment for an injury to his right leg shortly after Ty Jerome hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at the other end. Although Johnson returned about four minutes later — unlike teammate Nassir Little, who missed the rest of the game after suffering an ankle injury early in the first half — the Tar Heels never recovered.
In contrast to their fast-paced burst earlier in the half, UVa’s closing 21-6 run seemed to happen in slow motion.
“They made plays down the stretch and we didn’t,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “I think their defense was better than our offense. Their offense was better than our defense. We had a great run and things were going our way. After that it got a lot more difficult.”
Still, the difference between winning and losing for UNC may have come down to the fraction of a second it took for the ball to leave Coby White’s hand on a desperation 3-pointer from near midcourt as the shot clock expired with the scored tied at 59 and 3:29 remaining.
The miracle shot, which came about because the freshman point guard lost track of time at the end of a possession, was originally ruled to be good.
But it was disallowed after a review.
White’s timing was just as off at the end of the first half when he picked up a loose ball and scored what appeared to be a momentum-swinging basket a split second after UVa. was whistled for a shot clock violation.
“That’s the game of basketball,” said White, who led the Tar Heels with 17 points despite going 6 of 19 (3 of 11) from the floor. “The three was late. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
From that point on, the Cavaliers (21-2, 9-2) made 3 of 4 field goals, while holding UNC to just one of its final 11 shots while outscoring the Tar Heels 10-2.
Guy, who went 5 of 9 from 3-point range and scored 20-points to tie teammate Hunter for game-high honors, hit two huge 3-pointers during that stretch to save his team from its first consecutive ACC losses in two years.
UVa., which was coming off a home loss to Duke on Saturday, also got 15 points and 11 assists from point guard Ty Jerome.
“It was a game of ebb and flow, for sure,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. “We kept challenging — hang in there, get a stop, you’re still in it.
“I thought we had some tough stretches and Carolina did some good things, but when you have a guy like Kyle … Guys just made some plays and we were sound enough.”
UNC, on the other hand, wasn’t sound enough for too many long stretches. It shot just 35.4 percent from the floor (23 of 65, 9 of 30 from 3-point range) and scored just six fastbreak points in the game.
On the other end of the floor, the Tar Heels allowed UVa. to make better than 53 percent of its field goal attempts (24 of 45) and failed to take control of the game when it had the chance to do so.
“I feel like we had a great chance to win,” said sophomore big man Garrison Brooks, who put together another strong game with 11 points, eight rebounds and three assists. “We just didn’t seize the opportunity.”