In one of gutsiest performances in Wahoo history, UVA knocks Carolina out of contention for NCAA bid

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: The Atlantic Coast Conference

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Virginia walked into Thursday night’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against nemesis North Carolina under less-than-perfect conditions, but managed to put together what has to go down as one of the most gallant performances in program history.

The Cavaliers, walking a tightrope with a mediocre-at-best finish to their regular season, were tasked with facing a desperate Tar Heels team, a disappointing team that bracketologists claimed needed to at least make it to the finals in order to reach the NCAA Tournament. If facing Carolina essentially in front of a home crowd wasn’t enough of a challenge, Virginia had to do so without starting post man Ben Vander Plas, who suffered a fractured wrist in Wednesday’s practice and is out for the remainder of the season.

Losing Vander Plas, an undersized center in Tony Bennett’s smaller-but-more-mobile starting lineup, meant UVA had to rely on a pair of seven-footers who had watched their own playing time diminish down the homestretch of the season.

Francisco Caffaro, who started in place of Vander Plas, had played in three of the Cavaliers last five games coming in, while Kadin Shedrick had clocked a total of 18 minutes of playing time over the final four games of regular season before getting 18 minutes, 40 seconds against UNC Thursday night.

They were charged with defending Carolina big man Armando Bacot, capable of taking over a game via scoring or rebounding, a player who has caused Virginia considerable grief in recent history.

Against those odds, UVA prevailed with strong defense and free-throw shooting in the critical moments against a Carolina offense that went anemic.

Bacot, somewhat immobile from a rolled ankle in a second-round win over Boston College the night before, and stretch-forward Pete Nance, who had given the Cavaliers fits with a 22-point performance in an easy Tar Heels win two weeks ago, were held collectively to 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Most satisfying for Wahoo fans was likely knocking ancient rival Carolina (20-13) out of the NCAA Tournament and into the NIT. The Tar Heels were voted the nation’s preseason No. 1 team after returning practically the entire team from last season’s national championship runner-up squad.

The feat struck a particular note with Jayden Gardner, who was chiefly responsible for defending Nance, meanwhile posting a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

“It’s great man,” said Gardner, who alongside Shedrick grew up in the state of North Carolina, neither recruited by the Tar Heels. “They ended our season last year and it’s good to return the favor and it’s good to see our progress from three weeks later, losing at Carolina.”

Virginia’s win was spearheaded by Gardner, Armaan Franklin’s 14 points, and a super-aggressive Reece Beekman’s 15 points. Defensively, Caffaro and Shedrick did a number on Bacot and generally kept the Heels out of the paint, highlighted by Shedrick’s five blocked shots (see related game story on this website).

“Just wall up, be physical and have seven footers that can just rotate against Armando and stand up Nance in the post a couple times,” Gardner said. “It was just a battle most of the night. We knew he was injured, but they gave it their all.”

Caffaro, who finished with four points (2 for 2) and two rebounds, wasn’t worried about his numbers as much as limiting Bacot’s.

“I always like going against the big guys, that’s the time that I get to play,” Caffaro said. “I think we did a pretty good job of defending Armando. He’s a big piece of their team and probably a little hurt. We had a trap on him for much of the game. Things just weren’t going his way.”

Carolina coach Hubert Davis looked lost in his postgame briefing, having no answers about a team that didn’t approach expectations.

“Our record is our record, and I think regardless of our record, I think we have shown throughout the entire year that we can compete and play and beat anybody in the country,” Davis said. 

With Bacot limited and negated, Carolina had to depend on Nance, who was smothered by Gardner and faulty 3-point shooting, both factors in the Tar Heels’ win over Virginia in the second meeting.

Carolina was only 4 of 15 from beyond the arc against Virginia’s perimeter defense, a far contrast from the nine triples it made in the first half against the Cavaliers in the last meeting.

“At the end of the day, I felt like we had some really good looks from three,” Davis said. “It’s always one of the things that has gone back to us is our inconsistencies and our inability to shoot the ball from outside. Statistically, we’re last in the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage. How to loosen things up to get a little more space on the offensive end is to be able to knock down some jump shots. We just weren’t able to make enough.”

Without the perimeter game and with Bacot and Nance negated, Carolina was somewhat handcuffed.

“[Bacot] is our inside game and you really have to compliment [Kihei] Clark and Beekman … they’re really good on-ball defenders,” Davis said. “But I felt like in the first half, Virginia’s physicality on the ball and the physicality in regards to Armando kept us out of the lane.”

Meanwhile, Bennett was proud of his team for responding to the loss of Vander Plas.

“This is a close-knit team and we talk about lifting each other up,” Bennett said. “Unity is one of our big pillars and I really thought Jayden did the job, but I thought Kadin really gave us some rim protection, played hard, and Francisco did as well.

“That mattered, and again, we’ve got to be true to who we are and kind of double down on it. I thought the guys played as hard as they could. Losing a guy that’s played a lot, that’s always tough, but this group rallied around that and each other, and came out and played against a team that was playing some hot basketball from the last game.”

Carolina had eliminated Boston College 85-61 a night earlier, and again, was literally playing with its season on the line against Virginia.

For the Cavaliers, who now face Clemson in Friday night’s semifinals (9:30), they’ll need to get another good night from Shedrick and Caffaro against another team fighting for its postseason life.

For one night, though, knocking blue blood Carolina completely out of the NCAA was about as good as it gets for Virginia supporters. 

COMING: It was quite a night for little-used and almost forgotten Kadin Shedrick