Story by Scott German
Virginia seemed the perfect opponent for weary, bruised North Carolina, having lost six in a row, four by margins of 10 points or more. The Cavaliers had a completely different thought in mind, however, in welcoming the Tar Heels to their first-ever visit to John Paul Jones Arena.
Led by Tyler Hansborough’s 23 points, including a crucial baby hook over Laurynas Mikalauskas with 21 seconds remaining, the Tar Heels survived a surprising challenge by Virginia for a 75-74 Atlantic Coast Conference win. UNC (22-3, 8-2 ACC), coming off a double-overtime victory against Clemson on Sunday evening, got all they could handle – and more from Virginia, who played nothing like a last-place team.
Hansborough, after scoring 17 first-half points, was held scoreless until the final five minutes of the second half as the Cavaliers challenged for the tie or lead. His sweeping hook over Mikalauskas looked almost effortless. According to UNC coach Roy Williams, Hansborough’s shot was really difficult to describe. “Shot-put, jump-hook, baby half-hook, whatever you want to call it, that’s what makes Tyler such a fabulous player,” Williams said.
Virginia (11-12, 1-9), trying desperately to reverse fortunes, came up a point short, but not without a doubt its best performance in a month. Close, however, was of no consolation to coach Dave Leitao, who told his team. “Winners are revered, and losers go home.”
“In a close game, you’re going to have to find a way to get over the hump, and we have not done that,” Leitao said.
For Virginia, the difference in last night’s game – the Sean Singletary show was not a solo performance. Although Singletary was magnificent in scoring a game-high 27 points, several other players made big plays, a key factor that has been nearly void during the freefall.
The Cavaliers got within five points on several occasions in the second half, gradually inching a bit closer to UNC. It was 60-59 Carolina with 7:00 left, 63-61 just a minute later and then, with under three minutes left, Virginia had three opportunities to tie the game down by three, however, none of the three tries at three-pointers found range.
Trailing 73-68, Calvin Baker nailed a three-pointer for Virginia, pulling the Cavs to 73-71 with 50 seconds left. The Heels then turned to Hansborough, and he came through on his biggest basket of the night, pushing the lead to four points at 75-71.
With 21 seconds remaining, Virginia struggled to find an open shot. Singletary launched an NBA-range three that found all net to bring UVa. to within one at 75-74 with 8.2 seconds left. UNC inbounded the ball and erased all but 2.9 seconds from the clock before Virginia could catchup and foul. Wayne Ellington, who had scored 19 for the Tar Heels, missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, but time expired before anyone could gain possession.
On a cold, icy evening in Charlottesville, it appeared as Virginia would offer little resistance for their oldest rival. After watching as the Cavaliers opened an early 5-0 lead, UNC scored 15 straight and 20 of 22 points to bolt out to a 20-7 advantage. The Cavaliers then fought back, closing to within 38-31 at intermission.
Although they could never regain the lead over the final 20 minutes, the Wahoos battled UNC until the end. Milkaulskas’s return from nearly a two-month absence appeared to energize Virginia on both ends of the floor. Despite being unable to prevent Hansborough’s crucial late basket, Milkaulskas made his presence felt. A presence Virginia is going to need to see more of if they are to salvage the season.
Scott German is a SportsDominion correspondent.