North Carolina, back near full strength, gets back to its dominant best in win over Virginia

All Tony Bennett could do was stand there, helpless.

Virginia’s head coach was perched on a Dean Smith Center sideline, his arms folded, his lips pursed, lonely among a sea of Carolina blue during the second half of a beatdown, and he must have known that any course of action, any attempts to reverse the tide that was vigorously rolling to and fro in front of him, would have been in vain.

There is a certain fusion of mood and style that North Carolina basketball occasionally digs deep for and finds on this court, a mood defined by energy and pizzazz, a style defined by high-flying offense, intense defense and overpowering bigs, that at its most extreme is indomitable. Sometime on Saturday, during the buildup to their primetime showdown with Virginia, the 10th-ranked Tar Heels found it. And with it, their subsequent dominance of the 14th-ranked Cavaliers could hardly have been more comprehensive.

North Carolina took an early lead and didn’t look back, winning 65-41, and beating Virginia just as Virginia has beaten so many other ACC foes during Bennett’s tenure: From opening tip to final horn, first and foremost, with suffocating defense.

Virginia made the game slow, as it always does, but Carolina made Virginia’s offense slower. The ‘Hoos scored just 0.68 points per possession, a season low. They shot 2 for 20 from beyond the arc, and 27.8 percent from the field. They got next to nothing from their frontcourt, and literally nothing from sharpshooters Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, who ever a combined 0 for 11 from the floor. They missed open shots, but didn’t get many of them either.

Length and strength was the prevailing combination of the night for the Tar Heels, who had a full rotation in a high profile game — or at least a rotation that is as full as it will be the rest of the season — for the first time since last April. Theo Pinson, who missed the first two months of the season and had another short-term injury recently, looked healthy. Isaiah Hicks was influential after missing last week’s loss at Duke. Tony Bradley, who missed two games in January, offered additional defensive and rebounding prowess around the rim, as he has for much of the season.

Isaiah Hicks, who missed last week’s game at Duke with an injury, looked fully healthy in a dominant performance against Virginia. (AP)
Isaiah Hicks, who missed last week’s game at Duke with an injury, looked fully healthy in a dominant performance against Virginia. (AP)

Pinson, most of all, embodies that Carolina ethos as well as anyone, and while he was out of the lineup, Carolina rarely found that mood and that style that can make it one of college basketball’s most dangerous teams. With the 6-foot-6 senior back, with the most imposing frontcourt in the nation healthy, and even with sophomore shooting guard Kenny Williams likely sidelined for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, Carolina can find it more often. That makes the Tar Heels a national title contender.

Their offense was by no means impeccable Saturday night, and actually wasn’t at its high-flying best because Virginia wouldn’t let it get a running start. The visitors turned the ball over just six times, which limited the effectiveness of North Carolina’s transition game. But the Tar Heels ruled the paint, where they scored 34 of their 65 points. Kennedy Meeks, Hicks, Luke Maye and Bradley were peerless down low. Out on the wing, Justin Jackson was the best player on the floor. He’ll take on slightly more scoring and ball handling responsibility with Williams out, and he looked more than capable of doing so. Joel Berry’s scoring wasn’t even necessary.

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Virginia has won plenty of ACC games during Bennett’s tenure with team defense. It has won at the Dean Dome, and actually hadn’t lost to North Carolina in a regular season game in over four years. But, with the Tar Heels back at full strength, Virginia was overmatched individually at every single position on the court. London Perrantes was neutralized. Jackson was irresistible. The Tar Heel bigs were irrepressible.

With the win, North Carolina also kept pace in an ACC race that the Cavaliers have now fallen out of. Roy Williams’ team now holds a one-game lead over both Duke and Louisville, with a showdown with the Cardinals looming on Wednesday, and a rematch with the Blue Devils lurking on the final weekend of the season.

Four rounds still remain in the 18-round, 15-team battle that is the ACC race, and the eventual result of the battle remains up in the air. But round 14 did have a decisive feel to it. North Carolina beat Virginia above the rim and below it, inside the arc and outside it, at high speeds and deliberate ones, with consistent offense and defense, and it looked capable of doing the same to any of the other 13 teams in the conference.

That’s not to say the Tar Heels will. They’ve been erratic over the years, especially on the road, where they still must face a potentially vengeful Virginia squad in nine days’ time. But with a nine-man rotation healthy and presumably finally ready to play its best basketball of the season, would you really feel comfortable doubting North Carolina?