When Virginia lost three of its first five ACC contests, Tony Bennett did not panic. He continued to tweak, and the veteran core of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes continued to battle, but there was no panic.
After a 79-74 win against North Carolina on Saturday night, the Wahoos are right back in the thick of the title race, chasing a third-straight ACC regular season crown.
North Carolina fell out of solo first place with the loss, now tied with Miami at 12-4. Virginia moved into a tie with Louisville for second place at 11-5, and now they’ve got the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Tar Heels. UNC has two tough games left against Syracuse and at Duke while UVA faces an equally challenging final week: at Clemson and at home against Louisville.
This wildly fun ACC championship race was set by Saturday’s events and highlighted by Brogdon. The senior did it all with 26 points, six rebounds and three assists, putting on a show in a game that featured two ACC Player of the Year candidates (Brogdon and UNC’s Brice Johnson) on the same court.
North Carolina did a great job charging at the end of the game, but there were too many “need a stop” possessions in the second half that resulted in Virginia points. Anthony Gill (15 points) was great in the second half, pulling down six of his nine rebounds after halftime. Joel Berry was a highlight for the Tar Heels with five 3-pointers and 21 points, and Isaiah Hicks earned a highlight with this fierce spin move and dunk.
North Carolina is a great team and still in first place in the ACC standings, but seeing some of these apparent advantages on paper become weaknesses on the court creates a sense of uncertainty with this team. Virginia simply should not have been able to get rebounds over North Carolina given the matchups down low, but those key offensive rebounds negated long possessions of good defense.
Roy Williams has pleaded for more defensively from this team, and for long stretches the Tar Heels were tuned in against Virginia. The Wahoos were patient, and as the clock ticked down on their possesions — which averaged 21 seconds — they made the most of favorable opportunities. It was particularly evident in the second half when North Carolina needed stops the most and could not climb back into the game.
For Virginia this is the 19th straight win in John Paul Jones Arena and a huge victory in the chase for a third straight ACC championship and a third straight home win against the Tar Heels. A regular season title would be great, but this Malcolm Brogdon-led group can achieve much more than just regular season greatness in the next month.