The white-knuckle grip North Carolina had on one of the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seeds no longer is as tight.
The Tar Heels lost 53-43 at previously struggling Virginia on Monday night, missing a chance to wrap up the outright ACC title.
If North Carolina beats rival Duke at home on Saturday night to clinch the ACC outright, it’s tough to envision the Tar Heels not receiving a No. 1 seed no matter how they fare in their conference tournament. The ACC is college basketball’s deepest conference this year, and North Carolina would have at least a one-game cushion over all the other contenders.
If North Carolina loses to the Blue Devils and potentially falls into a first-place tie atop the ACC, that could leave the door ajar for someone else to bump the Tar Heels down a seed line. Louisville would have a chance to eclipse North Carolina with a strong showing in the ACC tournament, as could whichever Pac-12 contender separates itself over the next two weeks.
Many pundits have hailed North Carolina as the nation’s best team during its recent four-game win streak, but the Tar Heels (25-6, 13-4) certainly didn’t look the part Monday night in Charlottesville. Not only did they lose to a team they beat by 24 points earlier this month, they didn’t even make it halfway to their season scoring average of 86.4 points per game.
Credit Virginia’s savvy game plan and smothering defense for holding North Carolina so far below its season averages.
Virginia did an exceptional job limiting the Tar Heels’ transition opportunities and keeping Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley off the offensive glass. The Cavaliers also forced 12 first-half turnovers by doubling the post on the catch and defending aggressively on the perimeter.
Turnovers were less of an issue for North Carolina in the second half, but the Tar Heels seldom found any semblance of a rhythm. With shorter but quicker London Perrantes face-guarding him from start to finish, Justin Jackson had a hard time getting as many touches as normal and finished with a quiet seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.
North Carolina trailed only by one with 9:26 to play, but the Tar Heels missed 11 of their next 12 shots the rest of the way. Point guard Joel Berry had the only basket during that stretch and was the only Tar Heels player to crack double digits.
While Virginia wasn’t exactly dynamic on offense, the Cavaliers were considerably tougher to guard than they were during a recent four-game losing streak. Freshman Kyle Guy eased the pressure on Perrantes to always be the catalyst by scoring 17 points and knocking down five 3-pointers, several of which were heavily contested.
But while Virginia is just trying to regain its footing in time for the NCAA tournament, North Carolina has more at stake this week.
A No. 1 seed and an outright ACC title is still well within reach for the Tar Heels. Monday was a missed opportunity to tighten their grip on both.
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