CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.-Reggie Bullock had already knotted his tie and packed his travel bag, ready to put Virginia behind him. That's when someone mentioned to him that-after taking a dozen free throws in the first 14:16 of the game--his team had not attempted a free throw during a stretch of 25:21 that included the vast majority of the second half and included a 33-14 streak by a Cavalier team that typically considers a four-point burst a significant run.
Bullock started to reply to the question in that typical polite-but-ready-to-go-home way that you would have, too, if you had just lost your Atlantic Coast Conference opener. "Well, we weren't being aggressive enou..."
Then he stopped.
"Wait," he said. "You mean we actually didn't take a free throw? No free throws?"
That's it, Reggie. From the time James Michael McAdoo went 1-for-2 at the stripe with 5:44 left in the first half, to the time P.J. Hairston went 1-for-3 with 22.9 seconds left in the game, Carolina did not go to the foul line.
"Wow," Bullock said.
Don't misunderstand: this is not at all an indictment of the officiating. Instead, it's a very telling sign of the kind of shots the Tar Heels were getting. Carolina simply wasn't getting the ball very close to the rim--partially a tribute to the tough Virginia pack-line defense--and putting themselves in position to draw fouls.
"It's not being aggressive," Bullock said. "It's not trying to draw fouls, and being lackadaisical on the offensive end."
He's right. You will read the usual stories about Carolina struggling on defense, or not having enough intensity, because those are the usual post-loss storylines, both this year and most any year. But the simple truth is that the Tar Heels didn't make enough baskets--or even get enough good looks at the basket--to beat the Cavaliers.
Tony Bennett told his team it had to commit to transition defense. "Against Carolina, you want to make them play against a set defense," he said. That's exactly what Virginia did. The methodical Cavaliers actually had more fast break points (five to four) than Carolina.
And when the game slowed down for the Tar Heels, they too often couldn't find the right shot at the right time. There were some early warning signs; Roy Williams pointed out a first-half stretch that prevented Carolina from building a more formidable halftime advantage. The Tar Heels took a 25-24 lead into the locker room, but they came up empty on three possessions in the final 90 seconds, including a contested drive to the basket with 30 seconds remaining instead of holding the ball for the final shot of the half.
"There were three straight possessions when we made bad decisions," he said. "It would've been nice to have a six- or seven-point lead at halftime."
Then, in the second half, the offense eventually turned nonexistent except for Bullock. This was the first game of the season--but probably not the last--when the Tar Heels clearly tried to run every crucial possession through their junior from Kinston.
You know what? It almost worked. He hit a big three-pointer with 6:42 left that cut into a seven-point Virginia lead, then nailed another one off a set play with 3:51 remaining that drew Carolina within 51-48. Forty-five seconds later, after blocking Joe Harris's nearly point-blank layup attempt, Bullock ran the floor to rebound a Dexter Strickland miss in heavy traffic in the lane, then muscled up a follow shot to drag his team within one. It was one of two things: either exhilarating because it was the best three-minutes stretch any Tar Heel has played this year, or depressing because it was all the more noticeable precisely because Bullock was having to do everything himself.
That's the problem: the above paragraph just described every Tar Heel field goal over the final 7:51. The Tar Heels got exactly two points from the rest of the team other than Bullock over that stretch-one free throw by Hairston and one by J.P. Tokoto. Both came well after the game had been decided.
It's not just that Carolina couldn't score. It's that they couldn't get very many good looks at the basket. Too many possessions--too many key possessions--ended in a forced shot or a turnover.
As an example of the forced shots, the Tar Heels got a great matchup when 5-foot-11 Jontel Evans was caught on Bullock with under three minutes to play and Virginia up by three. But his teammates couldn't find Bullock, and the possession ended in an 18-foot airball. At one point, which included a healthy part of the second half, Carolina went through a 1-for-11 stretch on two-pointers alone.
As for the turnovers, they weren't the driving-to-the-basket-trying-to-make-something-happen type of turnovers, they were simple miscommunications. In one two-minute stretch late in the second half, Marcus Paige threw away an inbounds pass when Strickland made an unexpected cut, and Leslie McDonald misfired on a pass near midcourt to Strickland. Gritty Virginia, of course, turned those miscues into three points.
In those must-score situations during the Williams era, you're accustomed to the Tar Heels pounding the ball inside. "Score or get to the line," the head coach says constantly, and his team couldn't do either in Charlottesville.
Despite his 22-point, 5-rebound, 0-turnover effort, Bullock mostly wanted to talk about a shot he missed. When the Tar Heels had visited John Paul Jones Arena earlier in the day for shootaround, Bullock had tried to impart a little veteran wisdom to the younger Carolina shooters. "If you shoot it too hard in this gym," he told them, "it's going off the back of the rim and you won't get the bounce."
After a Williams timeout with under two minutes remaining, Bullock got a decent look at a three-pointer from the top of the key. He shot it...too hard, and it did indeed go hard off the back of the rim.
"I needed that one," Bullock said. "I take that shot in practice all the time, and when I let it go, I thought it was in."
It wasn't. But on this night, it was the best option Carolina had.