CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It’s not like the North Carolina basketball team didn’t know what to expect.
The Tar Heels had played Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena four times in the previous five seasons heading into Saturday’s game, with seniors Joel Berry and Theo Pinson having made two trips each.
They’d heard noise, dealt with the tempo and faced that suffocating pack-line defense before.
And yet, they still haven’t figured out a way to deal with it.
The eighth-ranked Cavaliers delivered what UNC coach Roy Williams described as “a big old butt kicking” to the defending national champions by forcing the Tar Heels into a season-high 19 turnovers and holding them without a field goal for the final 7:16 of an eerily familiar 61-49 thumping,
UNC has now lost five straight in Charlottesville since its last victory there in 2012 and the second straight in which it has failed to score at least 50 points.
“I’ve been here four years, so you know when you go play Virginia you’ve got to play the full 40 minutes and it’s going to be tough because they play so well defensively,” Pinson said. “They take away driving lanes and contest at the highest point of the shooters. That’s what they’ve always done.”
The Cavaliers (14-1, 3-0 ACC) have always been the defensive standard against which everyone else in the ACC is measured during the nine seasons Tony Bennett has been their coach. This year they lead the ACC in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and turnover margin.
They were even better than usual Saturday, blocking six shots, forcing the 12th-ranked Tar Heels into shooting just 29.6 percent in the second half and scoring 25 points off those 19 turnovers — including eight on breakout dunks off steals near midcourt.
“That’s about as good a defensive game as I’ve had anybody play against us, maybe ever but definitely in a long time,” Williams said afterward.
But as good as Virginia was, UNC (12-4, 1-2) contributed to its own demise by firing up wild shots, making bad decisions off the dribble and getting little or nothing offensively from its low post contingent.
Perimeter players Berry and Kenny Williams combined to make 11 of their team’s 16 field goals and scored more than half of its 49 points. Berry finished with 17 and Williams with 11.
Although the Tar Heels outrebounded the Cavaliers 42-30, with 19 of the boards coming on the offensive end, they were only able to convert that dominance into 12 second-chance points. They also went without a single fastbreak basket, confirmation that they allowed themselves to get sucked into playing Virginia’s preferred deliberate, low-possession style of game.
“Their defense was tough, but I feel like we had a lot of unforced turnovers,” said junior forward Luke Maye, who went 2 for 10 from the floor and was held to just six points — his first single-digit scoring effort of the season. “I feel like we’ve got to do better at making the right play and have everybody buying into the system.”
That doesn’t appear to be happening right now.
The Tar Heels have gone into a deep funk since winning five straight and rising as high as No. 5 in the national rankings in late December.
Their slide began with a stunning upset loss to Wofford and has intensified with consecutive ACC road losses at Florida State and now Virginia. The only thing standing between them and an 0-3 start to the conference schedule is a late comeback in their ACC opener against Wake Forest a week ago.
As troubling as the recent results might be, Williams said he’s not ready to start pushing the panic button, adding that playing ranked opponents in Tallahassee and Charlottesville is “some big-time competition.” But that doesn’t mean he plans to sit back and wait for his team’s problems to fix themselves.
“We’ve got to make some changes,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “We’ve got to make some tweaks. We’ve got to do a few things. Also, I strongly believe what we are doing works. It’s worked for at least a couple of weeks out of my 30 years. So we’re going to do a better job at our execution, too.”
The problem with doing things the way he’s always done them is his preferred inside-out approach just isn’t working with the group of woefully inexperienced big men on the current roster.
Starter Garrison Brooks and backup Sterling Manley combined for more turnovers (six) and fouls (four) than field goals (one) in a combined 29 minutes. Their ineffectiveness forced Williams to use his small lineup of Berry, Pinson, Williams, Maye and Cameron Johnson earlier and more often than usual Saturday.
He toyed with an even smaller lineup that replaced the 6-foot-8 Maye with 6-5 guard Brandon Robinson for the final 9½ minutes of the game. The undersized group had some initial success, trimming an 11-point Virginia lead to 54-48 with 7:16 remaining on an offensive rebound by Johnson.
But while they held their own defensively in limiting the Cavaliers to just seven more points, UNC’s offense went into the deep freeze, yielding only a single Maye free throw the rest of the way.
“I went five small guys there just to see if we could do something,” Williams said. “We did better defensively, but we didn’t get much offensively.”
But then, that wasn’t much different from any other time in the game.
“Nineteen turnovers,” Pinson said. “When you do that, you lose.”