In what was a rough night for Tar Heels (and ankles) everywhere, the biggest takeaway from UNC’s loss to Virginia last night was this: If Carolina is going to beat the top teams in America, they need to be at full strength. In the closing minutes of the game, they were not.
In the last month, the Heels have weathered the absence of reserves Sterling Manley and Leaky Black quite well, at times brilliantly in fact. The shortened depth chart did nothing to prevent the Tar Heels from embarking on a seven-game win streak. The loss of Nassir Little early in the game didn’t hold the Heels down either: The Heels held a seven-point lead with just under 8 minutes to go. A couple UVA baskets cut the lead to 55-52.
Then Cam Johnson went down. And finally, it was a bridge too far. One injury too many. The Heels lost control and poise down the stretch. There had been a lot to like in the second half: Garrison Brooks played one of his best halves as a Tar Heel, Coby White was running the offense confidently, and the team defense (brutal in the first half) had picked up tremendously. But without their most consistent and reliable player, the Heels finally cracked against a terrific Virginia team that doesn’t need much of an opening to stick the dagger in.
Johnson had turned in a strong all-around game up until that point: He would finish with 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists on the night. He shot 6-14 from the floor, but two of those misses were desperation heaves at the end of the game, trying to steal a two-for-one. He committed no turnovers and only one foul. He did very well.
But it was what his teammates were asked to do (and ultimately unable to) in his absence that reveals just how important the quiet veteran from Pittsburgh really is to this team.
The Tar Heels were asked to break down the best defense in America without the player leading the ACC in 3-point percentage: Over the last 8 minutes of game play, they managed just six points. They needed to take good care of the ball and get quality shots: Instead, they committed several turnovers, one of which was the heartbreaking Coby White shot clock violation (yes, I screamed as loud as you did when it went down). With the offense stalling, the Heels needed to dig in with their defense against Virginia’s playmakers: Brandon Robinson was forced to guard DeAndre Hunter, who exploited the mismatch for a layup and then anassist that came when the help came. Hunter would have been Cam’s cover in those minutes.
Yes, Cam returned (to the relief of all) with about 2 minutes remaining in the game. But at that point, the Heels of momentum was gone and it was Virginia’s game to lose. There were many, many reasons the Heels lost last night (poor defense in the first half, the inability to slam the door in the second half when they had the Wahoos down, inexplicably losing Kyle Guy on the perimeter). But chief among them was this: The Heels made a series of mistakes down the stretch on both sides of the ball. And they were without a fifth-year senior who doesn’t make too many of them.