CHAPEL HILL — If there ever was a case of numbers lying, Roy Williams is sure that he found one Saturday night.
In a 65–41 romp over No. 14 Virginia, No. 10 North Carolina held the Cavaliers to the second-fewest points by an opponent in Smith Center history.
Virginia (18–8) is second in the ACC in field-goal percentage (48.7%) but shot only 27.8%. It’s also second in 3-point shooting (38.9%) but made just two of 20 attempts. It was the fewest points scored by an opponent in Williams’ 14 UNC seasons (N.C. Central in 2009 and Northern Iowa earlier this season scored 42).
No ACC team has scored fewer points this season and only Pittsburgh (which shot 25.5% in a blowout loss to Louisville) has shot more poorly.
Those numbers mean that Tar Heels (23–5) must have played good defense, right?
“You know, it’s hard to say because I kept saying, ‘Gosh, he was open. Gosh, he was open. Gosh, he was open,’ ” said Williams, who was still at Kansas when Clemson was held to 39 points in Chapel Hill in 1995. “So I’ll have to look at the tape because I’m not really pleased with anything we did right now. But they missed a lot of open shots.
“I thought we had a sense of urgency defensively,” Williams said. “I thought we tried to do it, but I don’t think we were as good as the statistics will look like.”
The numbers are baffling considering that Virginia, which has lost three consecutive games, beat No. 8 Louisville twice, the second time by 15 points, and took defending NCAA champion Villanova to the buzzer before losing in Philadelphia.
Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson weren’t just chalking up the Cavaliers’ poor shooting to good luck. They were crediting a higher power.
“Thank you, Jesus, they didn’t go in,” said Pinson, who collected nine points, three assists and a steal.
Jackson, who carried the Tar Heels in the first half when he scored 18 of his game-high 20 points, knows that there is no reason to get too satisfied just because of Virginia’s putrid shooting numbers.
“We were blessed to have them have an off night and have guys on our team to play well,” said Jackson, wearing a “STRAIGHT OUTTA GOD’S WORD” T-shirt.
How blessed? You have to go all the way back to 1947, three years before Williams was born, to find a Virginia team that scored fewer points in Chapel Hill. That was in a 63–38 UNC victory in Woollen Gym.
“We just tried to contest every shot and be there,” Pinson said. “They’re great at reading screens, you just have to make sure that you have a hand on every shot and we did for the most part.”
Joel Berry II again struggled with his shot, going 2 for 9 from the floor and scoring an ACC-season-low five points. He thought the Tar Heels did a pretty good job on defense until he was told about Williams’ assessment.
“I think we played good, but it’s hard to say that since he said that,” Berry said. “But I think the reason Coach said that was because we can get better on the defensive end and we just don’t want to get complacent. They are a good team and we did a great job of making them just do something different.”
Perimeter defense seems to be an annual issue for Carolina, and the Tar Heels have had their share of problems defending the 3-point shot this season. They’ve given up 10 or more 3-pointers nine times.
“I think we can still get better, especially on the defensive end,” Berry said. “Tonight showed that we’re capable of playing some good defense.”
UNC held a Cavaliers team that hit 15 3-pointers four games earlier against Syracuse to two. When taking at least 12 3-point attempts this season, Virginia never made fewer than three until Saturday night.
“Even though there were some shots where we didn’t make them miss, I think it was us getting over the screens and making them move a little bit more than they’re used to,” Berry said. “I think when they came off, maybe we didn’t do a good job of getting a hand up or maybe we just made them move a little more and that was the reason why.”
The game obviously was played at Virginia’s preferred pace. The result showed that North Carolina can win playing either at a fast tempo or playing more slowly. Pinson said that the Tar Heels did what they could to take Virginia out of its comfort zone.
“They play at such a slow pace and they want to run the shot clock down,” Pinson said. “It works in our favor if we’re up on them and they get out of what they do. Once we got them to take a little more quicker shots, we got out, started running and expanded the lead.”
Kennedy Meeks, who had another strong game with 13 points and seven rebounds — all in the second half — along with three blocks and two assists, wasn’t convinced his team played great on defense.
“I don’t think it was our best game because they were missing shots that they would normally make,” said Meeks in not only agreeing with his coach but sounding like him. “I just think we need to do a better job of contesting shots, then that will fall into the great defensive category.”
Jackson knows not to expect that sort of shooting performance when the Tar Heels head up to Charlottesville for the Feb. 27 rematch.
“When we go up there next time, they’re probably not going to shoot like that,” Jackson said. “For us defensively, I thought we did some really good things as far as forcing their offense a little more out. But we’re going to have to settle in and focus on getting to shooters more because at home they are a totally different team.”
Carolina was 0–3 when scoring fewer than 70 points before Saturday’s victory. The slower tempo explains the Tar Heels’ ability to pull that off against Virginia. They shot 46.6% from the floor against the Cavaliers but shot under 40% in the three losses (Indiana, Georgia Tech and Miami).
“We made more shots than they did, but I don’t know that we covered them better than they covered us,” Williams said.
The comfortable victory gives Carolina (11–3) a one-game lead atop the ACC standings over Duke and Louisville (10–4), with the Cardinals coming to Chapel Hill at 9 p.m. Wednesday for another challenging clash with a ranked team.
Unless a review of the game video provides Williams with any shockers, he’s sure that the Tar Heels will have to play much better defense to have the same success against Louisville.