UNC’s tourney hopes dashed in loss to Virginia

The Tar Heels’ inconsistency struck again in an ACC Tournament loss to Virginia

North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis reacts after a turnover during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

GREENSBORO — Near the end of the first half, the five UNC starters stood at the free-throw line and had a conversation.

The Tar Heels’ ACC Tournament quarterfinal game was in a TV timeout. On the other side of the court, Virginia still sat in chairs, huddled around coach Tony Bennett, getting advice.

Perhaps the timeouts in the tournament were a little longer, as networks squeezed extra advertising revenue into postseason games — a fact that Bennett, in his 14th year at Virginia, would have known, while Hubert Davis, in just his second year as UNC coach, was still adjusting to. Or perhaps Davis was using a motivational ploy, giving his players, who had struggled with inconsistency and team play all year, time to figure some things out.

Whatever the reason, the Tar Heel players found themselves on an island, trying to find a way to solve UVA’s defense, which, apart from RJ Davis, seemed to have stymied the Carolina offense.

Pete Nance spoke emphatically, gesturing and pointing out angles and seams with gestures. At one point, he stepped away from the huddle and crouched into a defensive stance to make a point.

RJ Davis asked a question, and Nance answered. Caleb Love nodded across the huddle. Leaky Black and Armando Bacot discussed an issue one of them had about what Nance was explaining.

Play then resumed and Carolina passed the ball around on offense, struggling to find a good shot, until the shot clock expired for a turnover.

The moment was a microcosm within a microcosm, symbolic of a frustrating 68-59 loss to UVA that may have ended an even more frustrating season for the Tar Heels.

Carolina entered the season as the No. 1 team in the nation after making the National Championship Game last year and getting key players Black, Bacot, Love and Davis to return for one more year to finish the job. Instead, the Heels will likely become the first preseason No. 1 to miss the tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in the 1980s.

Personalities clashed, losses mounted and nothing seemed to cure the malaise surrounding the team. Carolina would get a strong outing, as shots fell and individual players were able to take over a game. There were back-to-back blowouts of Georgia Tech and The Citadel in December, a rout of Louisville in January and a 20-point win over Clemson in February. Each time, the Tar Heels proclaimed that the problems were over and everything was well again. Each time, history repeated itself a game or two later.

The Heels entered the Virginia game after yet another all-around strong performance, trouncing Boston College in UNC’s ACC Tournament opener on Wednesday. But once again, the success was fleeting, and the problems remained.

“We can nitpick on a lot of things,” said Black, “but at the end of the day, we just didn’t make plays. We didn’t play together. It is what it is. We didn’t win games we needed to win. We couldn’t get there.”

Coach Davis, who had complained about his team’s toughness and susceptibility to outside “noise” throughout the season, again pointed to the team’s focus being pulled away from the task at hand.

“The reality is when you’re speaking to a group in the locker room, and I’ve communicated to them that I’m talking to more than 18 guys in the locker room,” he said. “I’m talking to roughly 35 to 40 people, and so yes, there’s at times the noise, whether it’s from the phone, the family, the friends, the fans, the agents, the workout guys. I think at times it really hurt us.”

And yet, when it was just the five Tar Heels on the floor together, and no one else, the message still didn’t get through.

“For me, it’s just frustrating,” said RJ Davis, who led UNC with 24 points. “It’s not the way I wanted the outcome to be today. I felt like there was plays we could have made … the missed free throws, turning the ball over, just the little things. It’s been like that the whole year, just attention to details, little things that we just need to perfect and that we didn’t do in today’s game.”

The team’s future now seems unsettled. An NCAA bid is very unlikely, and UNC will have a decision to make if the NIT comes calling with an invitation.

After a grueling season, it seems that there may be a desire in the locker room for it to just be over. And there was certainly no desire to discuss the ending of a bizarre first-half timeout.

When asked if he wanted to play in the NIT, Black said, “No comment.” Nance said he didn’t want to think about it until after Selection Sunday. Love and Bacot both said they would do whatever the coaching staff decided.

As for the coaching staff making that decision: Coach Davis was asked to make a pitch to the Selection Committee for a bid for his Tar Heels and said, “Our record is our record, and I know that — I think regardless of our record, I think we have shown throughout the entire year that we can compete and play and beat anybody in the country.  … But at the end of the day, we had chances. For eight or nine of the 13 losses that we had, we were up in the second half. So we had our chances.”

So as the Tar Heels close the book on a maddeningly inconsistent season that started out with hopes so high, Nance, who did all the talking in the on-court huddle, got the last word.

“I had an amazing time here,” he said. “I appreciate everybody for embracing me and bringing me into the Carolina family. I couldn’t be more thankful to the coaches and teammates and fans for their support all year long.

“And I’m sorry we came up short,” he added.