Film Room: Devastating defense lifts UVA over Tar Heels

Story by Zach Pereles

North Carolina’s offense had sprung to life early in the second half, scoring 26 points over the first roughly 12 minutes of the second stanza. If Virginia wanted to make things interesting, it would need its offense to counter the outburst. If Virginia wanted to win, though, it needed to lock down defensively.

What happened next was a clinical display on both ends from the Cavaliers as they surged to a 69-61 win that had looked nearly impossible just minutes earlier. This was Virginia basketball at its best: a 21-6 run in less than eight minutes. To score that much in that time span is impressive. To hold an opponent — and not just any opponent, but the second-highest scoring team in the nation — to that few is otherworldly.

Here’s how the Cavaliers got it done.

Length on White

Kihei Clark played 27 minutes Monday night. They all came in the first 28 minutes of the game. Over the final 11:32, Virginia played six players:

  • Kyle Guy (6-foot-2)
  • Ty Jerome (6-foot-5)
  • De’Andre Hunter (6-foot-7)
  • Braxton Key (6-foot-8)
  • Mamadi Diakite (6-foot-9)
  • Jay Huff (7-foot-1)

This was Virginia’s best offensive group, but it was also its tallest and most versatile group defensively. The biggest advantage Tar Heels point guard Coby White had on Clark was his size. At 6-foot-5, he stands more than a half-foot taller than the 5-foot-9 Clark. But with this core group of players in the game for Virginia, White didn’t have the height advantage he normally enjoys. For the most part of the latter stages of the game, he had to try to attack Hunter or Jerome, and occasionally Key on a switch.

It didn’t work out well for him.

All video from WatchESPN.

On the first part of this possession, Hunter is matched up on White. After White turns the corner of a Luke Maye screen, he’s looking to attack. The only problem is there’s no room to split between the long limbs on Hunter and Key. White’s forced to the corner where he falls to the ground and nearly turns it over after Key closes down any room to operate. You can see the frustration on White’s face in the moments afterward.

Then, on the ensuing inbounds play, the ball eventually ends up in White’s hands, and he tries a deep three coming off a screen. This is a shot he had been able to get off cleanly earlier in the night against Clark and throughout the year against other point guards. But here, Hunter and his 6-foot-7 frame and length block the shot. Another desperation three is off the mark, and Virginia is in the clear.

After starting the game strong, White missed his final seven shots. His only points over the final 10 minutes of the game were two free throws. Though he finished with a team-high 17 points, it took him 19 shots to do so, which didn’t endear him to his coach, Roy Williams.

“He was 6 for 19,” Williams said after the game. “If you think I’m going to praise somebody for that, you’re not watching the same game I’m playing.”

Quick interior rotations

Jack Salt is Virginia’s best interior defender. He’s strong, he understands the pack line as well as anyone, and he’s very good at altering shots without fouling. But against UNC, he didn’t really fit the opponent. The Tar Heels employ two more perimeter-oriented bigs in Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson as well as the athletic Garrison Brooks. Salt is a throwback big man without a clear match against the Tar Heels, and as a result he played a season-low 10 minutes.

Over the final 11-plus minutes of the game, it was exclusively Diakite and Huff as the Virginia big men. And they did a terrific job with quick rotations and recoveries in the lane, especially when White tried to force his way to the basket.

Here are three examples:

Example 1:

On this play, Virginia actually commits the cardinal sin of letting White slice through the pick-and-roll defense, as Hunter is a little bit hesitant getting in White’s way. But both Key and Diakite play their help defense perfectly, and Diakite swats away White’s driving attempt, forcing a shot clock violation. This came at a crucial time in the game, too. Kyle Guy had just hit a three on the other end to cut a seven-point deficit to four, and the shot clock violation led to the under-eight media timeout. It was the first sign of life for the Cavaliers’ comeback.

Example 2:

Freeze this play as soon as Luke Maye catches the ball in the paint, and it seems like a certainty that either he or Brooks will score here. Instead, Hunter manages to guard both until Huff recovers, and Brooks forces up a wild shot. Of course, the more major impact of this play — White’s buzzer beater-turned-shot clock violation — was yet to come, but give Virginia credit for not allowing what looked like an easy score down low.

Example 3:

In this sequence, White actually gets exactly where he wants to after crossing over past Guy. But Guy doesn’t give up on the play, forcing White to shoot over Huff. This is where Huff’s 7-foot-1 frame makes the biggest difference, and White’s wild shot comes nowhere near the rim.

The Cavaliers’ performance on White down the stretch was especially impressive considering he is an elite finisher at the rim. Per Hoop-Math, White converts 67.8 percent of his shots at the rim, a terrific number for a guard. But against Virginia, his offense came to a complete halt, and the Cavaliers came away with a big-time victory fueled by their outstanding defense.



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