UNC routed Virginia in first meeting but Cavaliers have gotten better

By R.L. Bynum

NEW YORK — Streaking North Carolina has the full attention of Virginia coach Tony Bennett as his Cavaliers make a quick turnaround after a 51–50 win over Louisville late Wednesday night in the second round of the ACC Tournament.

In the quarterfinals Thursday night at 9:30 (ESPN) at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, No. 6-seed Virginia (19–12) gets the chance to avenge a 74–58 Jan. 8 loss to the No. 3-seed Tar Heels (23–8).

“This is an opportunity you want,” said Bennett of facing a UNC team that has won five consecutive games and 11 of its last 13. “It’s an important game for us. They all are. I hope we’ll show that we’re a better team, but it’ll take a good one for sure.”

It’s clear that the game in Chapel Hill didn’t go well for the Cavaliers but Bennett knows that his team has improved markedly since that game. He also knows how good the No. 25-ranked Tar Heels looked in their 94–81 Saturday victory at Duke.

“Yeah, they certainly separated from us, the way you saw Carolina play against Duke, and I think they’re playing good basketball,” Bennett said. “They’re very talented, and it seems like they’re peaking at the right time. It’s a great opportunity for us, a great challenge to be as good as we can be in our way and try and get it done.”

Armando Bacot had one of his monster games against Virginia with 29 points and 22 rebounds, easily penetrating the Cavaliers’ vaunted pack-line defense.

Other than the Cavaliers’ 64–63 home loss to Florida State on Feb. 26, they have played well down the stretch, losing 65–61 at home to Duke on Feb. 23. Wednesday was Virginia’s second consecutive game against the Cardinals after a 71–61 road win to end the regular season on Saturday.

Bennett says that Carolina will see a different Cavaliers squad than it saw in early January.

“Yeah, that’s what I like about this team. I said from where we were to start the season, they’ve improved,” Bennett said. “Florida State, we had our chances, that was a hard loss, and we did some things that were uncharacteristic in that game from a defensive standpoint.

“But, overall, the team has improved,” he said. “Individuals have improved and the team has improved. That means a lot to me because you want to be healthy and you want to be improved and playing good basketball at this time of the year, and I think these guys are doing that.”

The Tar Heels just hope that the Cavaliers’ perimeter shooting struggles carry over from Wednesday night.

Virginia, which had six 3-pointers in Chapel Hill, missed all six 3-point attempts against Louisville to become the first team to win an ACC Tournament game without a 3-pointer since 3-pointers were added in the mid-1980s.

It was only the second time in ACC Tournament history that a team went without a 3-pointer in a game after Georgia Tech was 0 of 3 in a 55–54 1987 loss to Virginia in Landover, Md.

Virginia leaned heavily on Jayden Gardner (17 points, shown in top photo) and Kihei Clark (15) against Louisville as they combined to score 32 of the Cavaliers’ 51 points. The pair combined to shoot 14 of 26 from the floor while the rest of the team was 7 of 24.

“I thought Jayden and Kihei made some tough [shots], whether it was off the ball screen and tough mid-range shots, and then Jayden [made] some physical plays,” Bennett said. “We’ve struggled to shoot this year at times. There’s no mystery there.”

In Virginia’s loss at UNC, Reece Beekman led the Cavaliers with 13 points.

“You’ve got to play true to who you are and just find ways, and that’s where our defense hangs us in there and you find some tough baskets, and I thought Jayden had some,” Bennett said of Wednesday’s victory. “And there were just enough plays and made enough free throws down the stretch. We needed every point, obviously, and again, I didn’t even get a chance, nor can I see it, the stat sheet, our shooting percentage. I don’t know if I want to.”

If he looked, he’d see that Virginia shot 33.3% in the first half and 42% for the game.

“The second half was better,” said Bennett, whose team trailed Louisville 24–20 at halftime. “We call it a knuckle-buster game. That was a knuckle buster and that’s all you could do. Sometimes that’s how it gets in tournaments, so again, we get to play tomorrow, and that’s a good thing.”

Carolina will be rested and ready.

Box from first meeting

ACC Tournament bracket

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