That’s been held up as the standard for how good this team can be, and it’s good enough to be among the best in the nation. It’s also eluded the Tar Heels after they left the island.
On Saturday night, though, the Tar Heels may have grasped — at least for a moment — that potential again in a 65-41 win against No. 14 Virginia.
“I think it was kind of a glimpse, especially on the defensive end, of how we were playing in Maui,” junior point guard Joel Berry said.
Virginia entered with the nation’s best scoring defense, but it was the Tar Heels (23-5, 11-3 ACC) who held the Cavaliers (18-8, 8-6 ACC) to the second-lowest point total ever in the Smith Center. The Tar Heels were playing their second game without sophomore Kenny Williams — arguably their best perimeter defender — yet only allowed Virginia to hit two 3-pointers. Head coach Tony Bennett’s team missed a staggering 39 of its 54 shot attempts and at one point trailed by 27 points.
“I’ve never seen his team miss that many shots,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
Williams was less than impressed with his team’s defensive performance, though. He kept saying “Gosh, he was open” time after time on the bench, as the Cavaliers managed to find open shots against UNC but failed to knock them down.
“I’d like to look at the tape because I’m not pleased with anything we did defensively right now,” Williams said.
Berry, though, was quicker to give credit.
“I think we played pretty good,” Berry said. “It’s hard to say that now that (Williams) said that, but I think we did a pretty good job on them.”
He acknowledged UNC had room to improve and pushed back on the idea that the team was peaking. But Berry added that the Tar Heels’ pace and intensity seemed to wear down the Cavaliers. And while they may have found some open shots, UNC made them put in more work than they were used to.
Even on an off night offensively — which typically spells bad news for the Tar Heels — Berry’s defense proved invaluable on Virginia’s London Perrantes, who entered Saturday’s matchup as the Cavalier’s leading scorer at 12.6 points per game. While Berry only shot 2-for-9 from the field, his opponent finished 3-for-10.
“I don’t think that really matters if he’s scoring,” senior Kennedy Meeks said of his backcourt teammate. “I think when he does a great job defensively on their best player, the sky’s the limit for us. And that’s what he did tonight.”
North Carolina thrived on the boards Saturday evening, helping control the tempo of the game. Isaiah Hicks had a game-high eight rebounds, his second highest total this season. Meeks and sophomore Luke Maye each added seven rebounds. All told, UNC dominated the glass and outrebounded Virginia, 44-26. The Tar Heels also had twice as many offensive rebounds (10) as the Cavaliers (5).
Meeks and first-year forward Tony Bradley also did well to protect the rim when Virginia managed to get a clean shot off. Meeks had three blocks and Bradley pitched in two.
The 41 points scored by Virginia are the fewest the Tar Heels have given up to the Cavaliers since 1947. That game was played so long ago, it took place in Woollen Gym.
But as good as Saturday’s win was, the Tar Heels know the game against Virginia was a step, not an end destination. With only four games remaining before the postseason — including three against top-15 teams — the pressure is on for UNC to play its best basketball from here on out.
And that means playing its best defense from here on out.
“If we can just get our defense up, I know we talk about it each and every game, but I think it’s something that we have to do to be able to make it to where we want to be,” Berry said. “Tonight showed us that we can get down and guard people, and if we can get back to where we were in Maui, that’d be a great thing.”
And while Maui might be where UNC is trying to return, it’s only the first step in a journey the team hopes ends in Phoenix with a national championship.