CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A road win against a top-10 team — a national championship contender — gets sparked into reality for many reasons, but most particularly because of distinct, maybe even season-changing moments.
For No. 4 Virginia, which won 69-61 in comeback fashion at No. 8 North Carolina on Monday night to take its fourth straight game in this series, the first development was of course Saturday’s home loss to Duke. That was the source of the anger and frustration.
“The whole bus ride here, the three hours, I was thinking about how much I want to play Duke again,” Virginia guard Ty Jerome said. “Then when we got here, I knew I had to relax and focus on this game. … But it was tough finding that line of letting that fuel you but forgetting about it so we could go on to this one.”
After the Duke loss — and thanks to a particularly intense Sunday dose of practice — Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett told his team that he wanted his players to treat the UNC two-day changeover like the NCAA Tournament. That’s when you play twice in three days against high-level competition. That’s what this could be for this team.
A dress rehearsal, if you will. And through the first 20 minutes, Virginia played its part well, leading UNC 36-29, holding the Tar Heels to a season-low in points through 20 minutes.
And then UNC found its groove in the second half. With Michael Jordan on hand (giving a vivacious crowd all the more reason to get loud and make the environment that much tougher for Virginia), UNC had a great start to the second half and eventually ran out a 17-3 run that gave them a seven-point lead with 8:58 remaining.
But then there’s the next key moment, which came shortly before UNC’s most comfortable spot. Who knows what Virginia’s season will become, but I can almost guarantee you that if this team makes the Final Four, the following sequence will still ring clear in the minds of UVA coaches and players.
“I almost blew out a couple of veins in my neck. I just said enough’s enough, we’re making it too complicated. I barked at them.” Virginia coach Tony Bennett
Virginia’s Braxton Key turned the ball over on a signature UNC corner trap play with 12:24 to go and Virginia starting to slip. The Cavs had rehearsed this trap scenario, and how to beat it, over and over in practice. And yet they got baited and fell for it. Less than a minute later, a timeout. Virginia’s down six. The crowd is in full-throat.
And so is Bennett.
He’s channeling his father, coaching legend Dick Bennett, who was known to motivate through the whites of his eyes and the capacity of his voice, which could envelop a huddle like a tarp.
“I almost blew out a couple of veins in my neck,” Bennett said as he admitted a little of his dad’s fury came out in that moment. “I just said enough’s enough, we’re making it too complicated. I barked at them.”
He was challenging his team — but also uncharacteristically fuming.
“I wasn’t calm,” Bennett said.
And that’s when Jerome stepped in and said something. He leveled out his teammates — and Bennett.
“During that timeout we got back to the huddle and coach Bennett was screaming at us,” Jerome said. “Some guys can’t take that, so I saw the look on guys’ faces. They looked out of it, they looked a little shocked. He doesn’t really yell a lot.”
Jerome saw the time and score. Down six with nine minutes left.
“That’s an eternity,” Jerome said, then added. “That huddle moment, it was rare. I can count on one hand for the three years he’s done that.”
Virginia would counter UNC’s 17-3 run with a 21-6 riposte, including a 12-2 run that ended the game. Jerome speaking up in the huddle altered the game’s outcome specifically in this regard: Virginia never turned the ball over after that. The giveaway hex was halted.
And then another crucial moment: Coby White’s 3-pointer didn’t count. That for sure swung the game in Virginia’s favor. A scramble, an incredible heave, a shot that fell in and popped the building to frenzy. But it didn’t count after officials ruled the ball was still in White’s hand (for perhaps a tenth of a second) when the shot clock expired.
“Seriously, when he slung, if that ball goes in, if it’s another split second, that would have been a pretty good play in the game,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
Bennett also admitted in the locker room afterward that it was a big moment, maybe the biggest, in the game. If that shot counted, UNC would have been winning 62-59 heading into the final media timeout.
Instead it didn’t — and UNC finished with 61 points.
“That was huge,” Bennett said. “It was a game of ebb and flow, for sure.”
And then the Virginia wave came and sucked UNC away with the tide, provided by Kyle Guy, who offered the clincher. His 3-pointer to make it 67-61 with 70 seconds remaining made Virginia’s revival from the loss to Duke all but official.
Guy’s 3-pointer came after UNC fans, some of whom were decked out in UMBC gear and were taunting and hooting much of the game reminding Virginia players of their historic loss to a No. 16 seed in last year’s Big Dance. What a killer shot to shut up the rowdies only a few feet from the baseline.
“I personally love getting heckled and booed,” Guy said. “That doesn’t faze me. Maybe one day they’ll figure out. … I wanted to go high-five them after we won so bad. But I calmed down. I don’t need to do that. Just smile and wave.”
“We got a lot of cold-blooded dudes on this team,” Guy said.
No question. Williams alluded to this in the lead-up to the game.
“I said earlier in the week that their one, two and three — Guy, Jerome and Hunter — are as good as anybody in the country,” he said.
De’Andre Hunter and Guy led team in scoring with 20 apiece. Jerome had 15 to go with 11 assists. The trio made 10 of their 15 3-point attempts. They are a dynamic and diverse trio that will stare into your face and drain shot after shot after shot. Virginia is not all defense, not by any means. Monday night was the reminder of that.
For as tough as the Duke loss was, it was all the more impressive for UVA to win this one the way it did. And in doing so, Virginia stays in the conversation for a No. 1 seed.
“I think the games like this, especially on the road, are big for us to get us where we want to go,” Jerome said.
The road, where Virginia is 7-1 this season. And still has proven to be better than everyone except just one opponent.
Jerome, Guy, Hunter — all of them — they’ll bask in this win on the bus ride back to Virginia. But one gets a sense the Duke sweep is going to be a broiling motivation for this team until, and if, they get a chance to face those Blue Devils again.