GREENSBORO, N.C. – No. 13 Virginia was ready when its moment came, from a strong second-half offense to a big man pressed into duty due to an injury.
North Carolina had its moment, too – one that merely underscored a season-long set of problems that might have finally put an NCAA Tournament bid out of reach.
Jayden Gardner had 17 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Cavaliers as they dealt a damaging blow to the Tar Heels’ already shaky NCAA hopes, beating UNC 68-59 in Thursday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
Reece Beekman added 15 points, five assists and five steals for the second-seeded Cavaliers (24-6), who finally wrestled away control of the game with a 9-0 run in the final two minutes after the Tar Heels had cut a 10-point deficit to 57-55. Much of that production came at the foul line, where the Cavaliers made 9 of 10 as UNC finally ran out of gas.
“I think we needed everyone, we really did,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
That included big man Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in the previous two games, swatting five shots with starting forward Ben Vander Plas lost to injury.
R.J. Davis scored 24 points to lead the Tar Heels (20-13), who shot just 35.8% to lose for the second time in three meetings with the Cavaliers. UNC also continued a season-long trend of struggling to hit outside shots, making 8 of 27 3-point attempts while big man Armando Bacot (four points, three rebounds) sat the final 10-plus minutes due to an ankle injury suffered in Wednesday’s second-round win against Boston College.
This never looked anything like the team that made a magical run to last year’s national championship game, then started the year with four starters back to earn a No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press preseason poll. Now the Tar Heels appear headed toward becoming the first AP preseason No. 1 to miss the tournament since its expansion to 64 teams in 1985.
“It’s not a great feeling,” Davis said. “Not the expectations that we had coming into the year. It was definitely frustrating and disappointing, but one thing I can say about this group is we fight to the end.”
UNC: The Tar Heels entered Thursday’s quarterfinal with a 1-8 record in the Quadrant 1 games that top an NCAA Tournament resume, with the lone win coming at home against the Cavaliers on Feb. 25 – and that one hovering on the line to fall into Quadrant 2 territory. This game – considered a neutral-court setting despite being roughly an hour from the Chapel Hill campus – ended up as a huge missed opportunity.
“I’m sad and disappointed for (the players) that we’re in this position,” second-year coach Hubert Davis said. “Just very sad for them.”
Virginia: The Cavaliers had lost at Boston College and at UNC before regrouping with wins against Clemson and Louisville to close out the schedule and clinch a share of the ACC regular-season title. They’ll carry a three-game win streak into the semifinals.
Virginia took a hit before even taking the court in Greensboro, with the school announcing that Vander Plas would miss the rest of the season with a broken right hand suffered in practice Wednesday. That led the Cavaliers to give 7-foot-1 redshirt senior Francisco Caffaro his first start of the season and more minutes for Shedrick.
Shedrick put the final touches on the win, swatting away Davis’ driving layup at one end and then sprinting the floor to take a feed from Armaan Franklin for a two-handed dunk with 27 seconds left.
“I was just staying ready,” he said. “I was treating practices like game days in my mind.”
Virginia scored on 13 of 16 possessions out of halftime and thrice stretched its lead to 10. The Cavaliers shot 58.3% after halftime while running what Bennett called “good, tough offense.”
DISCIPLINE AND DETAILS
The Tar Heels missed five second-half free throws and six straight shots when the game was in its critical final sequences.
“Down the stretch, the discipline and the details, the little things, free throws, taking care of the basketball,” Hubert Davis said, adding: “Just didn’t make the plays that you needed to down the stretch.”
UNC: Awaits its NCAA Tournament fate.
Virginia: Will play the North Carolina State-Clemson winner in Friday’s semifinals.