Mike Tyson memorably said that everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth. The Virginia Cavaliers had a great game plan, then got punched in the mouth by the North Carolina Tar Heels on Monday night.
Down 55-48 midway through the second half, were they going to crumble or respond? Their head coach, Tony Bennett, watched his players provide the right answer in Chapel Hill.
Virginia — knocked off balance by a 17-3 North Carolina run in a game in which two Tar Heels got injured for varying lengths of time — found its footing and closed the contest with a 23-8 finishing kick to dig out a 69-61 win over a gallant and resolute opponent. Virginia, playing Carolina two days after dealing with Duke, survived the 52-hour gauntlet with a 1-1 record. The win solidifies UVA’s place as a No. 2 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament and keeps the Cavaliers in the hunt for a 1 seed.
Forget about seedings for the moment, though. The bigger significance of this game was that Virginia showed it could handle in-game adversity coming off the loss to Duke.
“I think our guys just understood that it was going to take a high-level performance to come away with it,” Bennett said. “They were ready and they were locked in. I liked how they responded.”
Three players in particular helped Virginia recover from North Carolina’s roundhouse punch: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter.
Jerome delivered most of the buckets which enabled Virginia to erase that 55-48 deficit. Guy hit two late 3-point daggers to give Virginia its margin of victory. Hunter — who, it must always be remembered, was injured during last March’s historic loss to UMBC in the NCAA Tournament — showed how essential he is to this team against North Carolina, but he did so at the defensive end of the floor. With a steal here and a blocked shot there and a closeout over there, Hunter made the winning plays which kept Carolina’s offense at bay in the final seven minutes. He enabled Virginia to regain its edge after UNC had punctured the Hoos’ defense for the first 13 minutes of the second half.
This would have been a profound missed opportunity for Virginia. North Carolina lost Nassir Little to injury in the first half, and the young reserve didn’t return for the rest of the game. In the second half, UNC’s Cameron Johnson was briefly knocked out of the game with an injury of his own. He came back later in the second half, but wasn’t particularly effective. Virginia lost to Duke with Mamadi Diakite missing the latter stages of the second half due to a concussion. Diakite was back on the floor for UVA in this game.
Attrition favored the Cavaliers, but when they fell behind by seven with just under eight minutes left to play, nothing favored them. This team had to come up with a convincing answer after getting punched in the mouth.
Mike Tyson would approve of the way Virginia fought back against an excellent opponent on Monday night.
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