CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Roy Williams didn’t think twice when asked what the difference was in a Virginia team North Carolina led at halftime, and then saw pull away and win their ACC opener, 61-52, on Sunday night.
“Jontel,” the Tar Heels’ coach said, speaking of Cavaliers senior point guard and captain Jontel Evans, who returned after missing nine of the first 13 games and made an immediate impact.
“I thought Jontel coming back was big for them,” Williams said.
Playing in spurts that added up to 21 minutes, Evans contributed eight points, all on drives to the basket, and six assists. He had three turnovers in the first half, none thereafter.
“I just had to settle down and go at my own pace,” Evans said, adding that his right foot, which he reinjured in his second game back the last time he tried to return, gave him no trouble this time.
“Every time we play these guys, they just bring out the best in me,” he said. “North Carolina is a great basketball program and you just want to go out and show them that you can play as well.”
Joe Harris led Virginia with 19 points and sparked a 15-2 second-half run. His 3-pointer, off a feed from Evans, ignited the game-changing burst for Virginia (11-3, 1-0), which had just fallen behind 34-26 after North Carolina opened the half on a 9-2 run.
“They were better than we were offensively. They were better than we were defensively. They were more alert, more aggressive,” Williams said. “The first two minutes of the second half, we were good, and the last 18 minutes we weren’t very good.”
During the 15-2 burst, Evans also scored on a drive and fed Evan Nolte for the first of back-to-back 3s that put Virginia ahead 46-40.
“His ability to put pressure on the paint and get in there, that stood out,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of Evans.
Reggie Bullock scored 22 points for the Tar Heels (10-4, 0-1), who lost for the first time in five visits to John Paul Jones Arena. Bullock’s final basket came with 3:11 to play, pulling the Tar Heels within 51-50, but Harris scored on a short bank, Paul Jesperson made a driving layup and Virginia hit 6 of 8 free throws before P.J. Hairston scored again for North Carolina, making a free throw with 20 seconds left.
After missing its first shot of the second half, North Carolina scored on four straight possessions, and Bullock’s 3-pointer capped a 9-2 run that gave the Tar Heels a 34-26 lead. After an exchange of baskets, Harris came free for a wide-open 3-pointer, sparking a 10-0 run for Virginia, and when Nolte soon followed with back-to-back 3-pointers, Virginia was ahead to stay.
Evans had missed the past four games for Virginia, and got rousing applause when he checked in for the first time, even though Teven Jones started in his place and made two early 3-pointers.
North Carolina led 25-24 after a physical, but bizarre first half. Neither team led by more than five, and the Cavaliers were whistled for seven personal fouls before the Tar Heels got their first.
Once North Carolina got called for one, five more quickly followed, to the delight of a near-sellout crowd, but the Tar Heels finished 7 for 12 from the line, the Cavaliers 2 for 4.