- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They had the ZOOperstars performing at the North Carolina-Virginia game Friday night. Maybe you've seen them. They are inflatable mascots, and these were animals representing sports stars. Of course, here in the Tar Heels' home, two of the ZOOperstars on hand were a giant rodent named Mia Hammster and a big fish named Mackerel Jordan.
The inflatable-fish version of MJ has a little skit for a timeout in which he pretends to eat somebody from the other team -- in this case, a guy in an orange shirt acting the part of a Virginia staff member. Then, Mackerel "coughs" up the victim's clothes.
And guess what? Of all the gyms and minor-league ballparks where the inflatables surely have done that bit of vaudeville, it couldn't have been more appropriate than it was Friday at the Smith Center.
Because there's no better way to describe what the Tar Heels did to the Cavaliers: They chewed them up and spit them out. Who was expecting that?
Anticipating a Tar Heel victory was one thing. UNC came in undefeated and ranked No. 2 and had won its last 12 meetings with UVa. But a 103-74 win? More points than Carolina has ever scored against Virginia? Wasn't this supposed to be the "danger" game that could derail the Tar Heels' chance to be unbeaten entering Big Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) against top-ranked Connecticut?
"You could definitely feel the energy -- an energy we probably haven't felt in the last couple of games," said senior Rashanda McCants, who led UNC with 23 points. "It kind of motivates you, and the way it feels now, you want that feeling every game."
In the Tar Heels' first two ACC games, they didn't look sharp. They struggled against Clemson, winning by just nine points, and struggled even more against NC State, going to overtime before winning by nine again.
What happened between that game with the Wolfpack on Sunday and Friday's demolition of No. 12 Virginia?
"Practice has just been getting more and more intense," McCants said, "and it's been preparing us for these games."
Also, coach Sylvia Hatchell, pulling from what she called her motivational "bag of tricks," brought in a Tar Heel legend -- no, not Mackerel Jordan -- to talk to her team. Hatchell went really old-school: Lenny Rosenbluth.
Before he came in, Hatchell pointed to his jersey in the rafters, telling them about how he was an All-American for UNC, a star on the 1957 national championship team. Then Rosenbluth spoke to these youngsters -- and they listened.
"He talked about heart, how much passion they had, how they knew each other as a team," McCants said. "How with rebounding, you were always going in, you were never a spectator. I really took notes on that."
Friday, the Tar Heels -- after an initial Virginia surge to start the game -- settled in and did all the things Rosenbluth had spoken of: They communicated, shared the basketball, went hard to the boards.
It was the kind of effort they will need against UConn, but it meant more than an effective tune-up for the top-ranked team. Win or lose Monday, the Tar Heels' victory over Virginia was important because of what it means in the ACC race. And potentially how it helps UNC build toward an assignment to the Raleigh Regional in the NCAA tournament.
"Every game in the ACC can make a difference," Hatchell said. "And I still think Virginia could come back and beat anybody in the country."
The Cavs had that shell-shocked look Friday, though, because they certainly thought they were ready to compete with Carolina.
Monica Wright had 24 points, Lyndra Littles 21 and Aisha Mohammed 13. But UVa's trouble at point guard -- Sharnee Zoll graduated, and Paulisha Kellum suffered a torn ACL before the season -- showed in how the Cavs became increasingly disorganized offensively against Carolina.
"I thought we played a good 10 minutes," UVa coach Debbie Ryan said. "From that point on, we weren't running offense, and I wasn't getting much point guard play by the end of the first half.
"That's what we spent most of halftime talking about. And then we got no defense at the beginning of the second half, which was when the game was pushed out of reach. You have to give Carolina credit. They got lots of scoring from lots of people."
Besides McCants, four other Heels scored in double figures: Chay Shegog (17), Italee Lucas (16), Cetera DeGraffenreid (14) and Jessica Breland (11). UNC made nine 3-pointers and outrebounded UVa 51-43.
Of course, against UConn, the Tar Heels will face extremely good point guard play, they won't see any defensive lapses, and they will go against a team as tenacious on the boards as they are.
Facing the offensive skill of players such as Wright and Littles is good preparation for UConn, but things have to be just as sharp (or sharper) if UNC is to have a shot to beat the Huskies.
Still, they couldn't have asked for anything better in preparation for their Big Monday showdown. And watching the Tar Heels hang 103 points on a legitimately good opponent is the kind of basketball that even the "real" Mackerel Jordan would have eaten up.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
It was a game some suspected might end North Carolina's perfect start. Instead, the Tar Heels simply chewed up and spit out Virginia.