With under a minute to play in Sunday night’s game, the public address announcer at John Paul Jones Arena, who was anticipating a Virginia win, warned fans not to come on the court afterward.
The way things have been going for UVa this season with injuries to key players, it seemed like a jinx.
But Virginia, behind its usual stout defense and timely buckets down the stretch from unlikely players, opened its ACC season in style, defeating North Carolina, 61-52, in front of a crowd of 12,117.
Non-conference losses to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion are a distant memory for Virginia (11-3, 1-0 ACC), which plays at Wake Forest on Wednesday night.
“It felt good,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “I thought in the second half we took better care of the ball and became more rugged offensively.”
Joe Harris led Virginia with 19 points. Akil Mitchell, playing with a badly sprained ankle, had seven points and 11 rebounds. Evan Nolte chipped in with nine off the bench.
Jontel Evans, playing for the first time in five games due to a foot injury, had eight points and six assists.
“That was big,” said Evans, smiling. “It’s a confidence booster for us and some of my teammates, some of the young guys.
“The energy in the building was just outstanding tonight. I’m proud of my guys.”
Reggie Bullock led North Carolina (10-4, 0-1) with 22 points.
“ACC basketball and on the road are all good excuses, but we just didn’t freakin' play,” said UNC coach Roy Williams.
After committing nine first-half turnovers that resulted in 12 UNC points, Virginia had just two after the break.
Clinging to a three-point lead with under two minutes to play, Virginia sophomore Paul Jesperson hit a whirling shot in the lane with his left hand to give Virginia a 55-50 lead. UVa was able to hit enough free throws the rest of the way.
“Coach has talked to me about being more assertive,” said Jesperson, “so I came off the screen, put it on the floor and was able to get to the rim...
“Fortunately, I was able to switch it up in the air a little bit and finish.”
After trailing by just a point at the half, UVa started the second half sluggishly.
UNC capitalized on two quick turnovers and took a 31-26 lead.
The Tar Heels went up by eight on a 3-pointer by Bullock before Virginia went on a 20-6 run that was spurred by a Darion Atkins block of a James Michael McAdoo dunk attempt. A Jesperson 3-pointer tied the game before a driving bucket by Joe Harris gave UVa a 38-36 lead.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by freshman Evan Nolte gave Virginia a 46-40 lead. A 3-point play by Harris gave UVa a 49-42 lead with 7:06 to play.
In the first half, the teams played to a virtual draw.
Virginia got off to one of its better starts.
Atkins emphatically blocked the shot of a driving McAdoo. At the other end of the court, Harris knocked down a 3-pointer.
Freshman Teven Jones, who was just 3 of 11 coming into the game from 3-point range, knocked down two triples within the game’s first 3 minutes and 11 seconds.
A Harris bucket gave Virginia an early 11-6 lead before UNC’s P.J. Hairston and Brice Johnson scored five points to tie the game at 11.
Evans made his return less than three minutes into the game. The point guard scored on a pretty floater to give UVa a 16-13 lead.
The highlights of the half for Virginia came within a 15-second stretch when Harris and Mitchell scored on back-to-back dunks.
Harris’ jam came after he sneaked past Bullock on a back-door cut, took a pretty bounce pass from Nolte and threw down a two-hander on McAdoo.
Moments later, Mitchell dunked a lob pass from Evans on the fast break.
UNC wasn’t called for a foul until 4:44 remained in the half – at which point the crowd gave a sarcastic ovation.
UNC led 25-24 at the break.
Bennett didn’t think Mitchell, who had sprained his ankle in practice, would be able to play.
“He sprained it pretty badly and it was swollen,” Bennett said. “He went on a lot of adrenaline.”
Mitchell said he thought he was a step slow.
“I wasn’t as strong as I usually would be,” he said, “but it wasn’t enough to stop me from playing.”