WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three weeks ago, when North Carolina lost to Virginia in Charlottesville, UNC head coach Roy Williams said Virginia was the actor and Carolina was the reactor. The Tar Heels will try to reverse those roles Saturday night, when top-seeded UNC faces Tony Bennett’s second-ranked Cavaliers in the ACC tournament title game.
Both teams are deep. Both teams are playing strong defense. And they‘re both hungry to reclaim the ACC tournament championship: Virginia’s last came in 2014. The Tar Heels haven't won it since 2008.
In the evening’s first semifinal, Carolina proved to be anything but reactionary, dominating both ends of the floor as it dismantled Notre Dame 78-47. In a high intensity matchup filled with emotion that saw two players separated after a scuffle and a veteran player in tears on the bench, North Carolina avenged its four-point February loss to the Fighting Irish and used its depth and high-octane pace to exhaust them.
“It wasn’t pissed off, it was determined,” Tar Heels sophomore forward Theo Pinson said of his team’s performance. “We were determined to get payback. They beat us three times in a row, so it had a little more edge to it."
Edge and a side of Paige. In a Verizon Center crowded with baby blue, the Marcus Paige everyone expected before the season began re-appeared, leading North Carolina on an 18-0 run that Notre Dame never recovered from late in the first half. The senior point guard’s 16 points topped the team and his first-half offensive performance ignited the crowd and his teammates.
“When I see Marcus playing like that, that makes me happy because I know he’s confident in what he’s doing,” sophomore guard Joel Berry, who tied for second on the team with 12 points, said. “I know he started the year with a bad stretch of shooting, but once he gets it going, it’s dangerous.”
“I had a lot of confidence coming into the ACC tournament that I was going to be able to knock down some shots,” Paige said. “To finally do that is a big weight off my back.”
And it wasn’t just Paige. The Heels led a balanced attack, with five players in double-digit point totals, and 40 points in the paint to Notre Dame’s 10. Junior forward Isaiah Hicks dominated the boards on both ends, grabbing seven offensive and eight defensive rebounds. Even with senior forward Brice Johnson on the bench with foul trouble at the end of the first half and much of the second (12 points and 7 rebounds in 15 minutes), the Heels shut down the Irish’s offense.
“We could make our travel plans at halftime. Let me put it that way,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “I thought their defense, from what I watched, was a different level than I’ve seen all season.”
The Irish were visibly frustrated (17 turnovers—10 in the first half, seven in the second) and fatigued after a hard-fought overtime win against Duke on Thursday. During a possession scuffle, Notre Dame’s Matt Ryan and UNC’s Justin Jackson shoved one another around the baseline, both refusing to let go of the ball until referees and teammates broke them up.
Williams noted the Tar Heels’ 20 points off offensive rebounds, as compared to the Irish’s five, remembering the 23 Notre Dame scored in South Bend earlier this season. Eight Carolina players totaled 21 assists, yet another reminder to opponents of Carolina’s depth potential when the wheels are in motion.
While both teams shot under 40% in the second half, the Tar Heels maintained their defensive pace and Notre Dame never came close to catching up.
Asked if UNC would like another shot at regular-season revenge, this time against the second-ranked Wahoos, Berry said, “It’d be nice to get revenge on Virginia, but right now, we’re focusing on ourselves. We just want to do what we have to do to win.”
In the second semifinal, ACC MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon showed again that he is nearly unstoppable. He scored 24 points, including 10-of-11 from the free throw line, as the Wahoos bested the third-seeded Miami Hurricanes 73-68. Brogdon’s performance was his 17th game this season with 20-plus points and his third straight ACC tournament game with at least 24.
From the opening tip, the score stayed close throughout the first half, with Virginia jumping to an early lead that forced Miami to play catch up. In front 36-25 with 1:42 remaining in the first half, junior guard London Perrantes waved his arms to hype the crowd, and the rowdy swaths of Virginia orange responded.
But the Hurricanes stayed in the game until the very end, led by senior Sheldon McClellan’s 15 points, cutting the Virginia lead to five by the half and trailing by the same margin with 36 seconds remaining in the game.
Stat lines for both teams were almost parallel: the Wahoos shot 54.8% to Miami’s 52.0%; the Hurricanes snagged 25 rebounds to Virginia’s 26. But one number made all the difference: turnovers, and the resulting points.
“We dug ourselves a quick hole,” Hurricanes head coach Jim Larranaga said. “We were down, like, 10, early. Fought our way back … but uncharacteristically we turned the ball over. We had 16 turnovers for the game. That’s just not like us.”
Some Miami turnovers were simple errors. After the Hurricanes cut Virginia’s lead to three with 13:43 to play, Hurricanes point guard Angel Rodriguez dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds, to the delight of the Cavalier faithful in the crowd.
Virginia made the most on those turnovers, adding 19 points.
“I think that’s huge,” Brogdon said. “We’re not a team that presses you really hard and forces turnovers. Any time we get another team to turn the ball over that many times, we try to capitalize on it.”
Offensively, Virginia showed its depth. When Brogdon faced double teams, his teammates often took the lead, whether it was Perrantes from behind the arc or Mike Tobey—the Wahoo’s second-leading scorer in the first half—with an offensive rebound and put-back basket. Perrantes handled Miami’s tenacious press with his characteristic calm, particularly in the final minutes.
Emotions flared for players in this game as well, with reactions coming from all sides. Many of the game’s final possessions were dominated by free throws. Not surprisingly, Brogdon made the final two for Virginia from behind the line, sealing the five-point victory and a rematch with the Tar Heels.
These two teams are familiar ACC tournament foes. Last year, the fifth-seeded Tar Heels beat top-seeded Virginia 71-67 in a semifinal. Both teams say they’re ready, and emotions will likely be riding high again.
“I love the resiliency, and the warrior-like attitude that I ask from them,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said of his team. “They laid it out there and now they get a chance to contend for it tomorrow.”