Virginia shows strong character in comeback win against UNC
Story by Zach Pereles
A halftime lead of seven had evaporated for the visitors, and North Carolina, by way of a full-court press and a rediscovered shooting stroke, led by seven with under eight minutes to go.
The Cavaliers could have withered away. Who could have blamed them? A combination of heavy legs and heavy hearts from having played an emotional game 48 hours earlier, cold shooting and a tough road environment is too much for most every team in America to overcome.
Or they could reel off their best seven minutes and 51 seconds of the season, outscore the Tar Heels 21-8 and leave the a packed crowd in disbelief.
Led by their veteran leaders and their steady coach, they chose the latter. Virginia, as it turns out, is not like most every team in America.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make plays to beat the top teams, and that’s what we did tonight,” Ty Jerome said. “If we want to go where we want to go, we’ve got to make plays in crunch time.”
On Monday, those crunch-time plays took them to the win column, the fourth straight time the Cavaliers have been there against the Tar Heels.
It was a stretch that seemingly came out of nowhere. North Carolina had extended its defense all 94 feet, and saying the visitors were out of sorts would have been putting it nicely. The damage over the first 12:09 of the second half read 4 for 14 shooting, three turnovers and a 26-12 run for the hosts.
This was when the Cavaliers were supposed to lose. They were doing the things a Tony Bennett-coached team doesn’t do. The slowest-paced team in the nation couldn’t hang with one of the fastest. The script had been seen before.
And then Kyle Guy ripped the script to shreds and ripped Carolina faithfuls’ hearts in two in the process.
The junior sharpshooter — struggling of late — knocked down a three. His backcourt mate Jerome hit a free throw and then nailed a corner triple of his own in transition. In less than two minutes, the Cavaliers were right back in things at 55-55.
Who says Virginia can’t get scores when it needs to the most?
And the Cavaliers simply didn’t stop. Jerome hit a tough runner to knot things at 57 and De’Andre Hunter finished at the rim to knot things at 59.
Then Jay Huff — whose lack of strength has kept him off the court at times — finished as strong as anyone in a Virginia uniform this season. The 7-foot-1 big man timed his cut to the basket perfectly, caught a pass from Hunter and finished the layup with three Tar Heels hanging onto him for dear life.
The Cavaliers led 61-59 with 3:12 to go, their first lead in over 11 minutes of game time.
It was Huff who gave Virginia the lead, but it was Guy who made sure his team never lost it.
He hit a corner three and a wing three — both coming off screens — to put the Tar Heels to bed.
They were shots Virginia has draw for him for seemingly his entire UVA career.
They were from offensive sets North Carolina has seen and tried to stop for seemingly his entire UVA career.
And yet when the Tar Heels needed to stop one of the nation’s best long-range snipers, they simply couldn’t.
“Coach drew those up, and hats off to him, he’s really good at drawing up quick-hitters, and Ty found me,” Guy said. “I don’t need much time to shoot — that’s something I’ve worked for. I think the biggest thing for me, I know I’m a very confident person … and I know that I’ve worked for everything that I’ve gotten, but I think it means the world to me when someone like Ty has more confidence in me than, sometimes, I do.”
Though Virginia’s shot-making down the stretch was what won it the game, its defense is what gave it a chance. Over the final five minutes and thirty seconds, North Carolina made exactly one shot.
Or, to put it more precisely, the nation’s second-leading scoring offense made one shot in the most important stretch of one of its biggest games of the season.
“We’re gritty; we’re tough,” Jerome said. “Guys made big plays. We got big stops. Guys did a great job of getting big rebounds on the glass. We’re just a gritty, tough team, and we have to continue to play like this moving forward.”
The Cavaliers needed to play their best basketball in order to avoid consecutive losses for the first time since the 2016-2017 season. After turning the ball over 10 times in the first 28 minutes of the game, they didn’t cough it up once the rest of the way. Their best shooter at long last caught fire.
Their defense was even better. North Carolina missed 10 of its final 11 shots and turned it over twice in that stretch. The result was its lowest-scoring game of the season, just minutes after it looked like the Cavaliers had no answer defensively.
It’s hard to finish a game any better than that on either end.
Virginia’s identity wavered Monday night. The Cavaliers made uncharacteristic mistakes and at times looked lost.
With 7:58 remaining, the Cavaliers were supposed to go quietly into the Carolina night.
Instead, they roared back.
“They are always there,” North Carolina guard Kenny Williams said. “They play great defense, and that is what they hang their hats on. … They might slip up once or twice, but they make up for it. It’s hard to play against them. You have to be locked in every possession. If you don’t do the right thing every possession, it’ll be a long night for you.”
For the Tar Heels, it will indeed be a long night wondering how they lost control when all seemed in their favor.
But for the Cavaliers, it will be a joyous ride home after responding in a way few other teams ever have — or ever will — in Chapel Hill: by being themselves.