WASHINGTON, D.C.— A backcourt duo with the hot hand. An emerging sophomore superstar. A deep, solid bench. And a powerhouse defense. The top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels showed it all in a high-intensity battle with the second-seeded Virginia Cavaliers in the ACC tournament championship on Saturday night, winning 61–57 in a game that saw 10 lead changes and five ties.
The Tar Heels claimed the regular season and tournament titles for the first time since 2008. Perhaps more importantly, in their fourth consecutive win, they showed why they may be the team to beat in Houston on April 4. UNC combined 51.1% shooting with a stifling defense, against a team known for its defense. while grabbing 23 defensive rebounds and scoring 11 points off turnovers.
“We had them where they were taking shots they didn’t want to take,” ACC tournament MVP Joel Berry said. “Also, we picked up the intensity and got them out of what they wanted to do and limited them to one shot.”
The defensive battle began in the opening seconds. Before a raucous crowd divided with pockets of blue and orange, UNC grabbed the opening tip-off but was forced into a turnover by Virginia’s defense. On the Cavaliers’ subsequent possession, the Carolina defense forced the Wahoos into a desperation move after the shot clock expired, a collective stymie they’d repeat throughout the game.
“We got stuck at the end of the shot clock and had to force some plays,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said. “That’s partly on us and partly to how hard they played and got after us.”
The Heels limited ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to 6-of-22 shooting and forced Virginia into committing 10 turnovers and shooting 36.5% from the floor. Still, Virginia battled by passing the offensive reins throughout the team (Anthony Gill had 13 points, London Perrantes finished with eight), and held a slight lead for most of the first half.
For the second straight night Marcus Paige had a steady shooting hand, and combined with Berry—the team’s leading scorer with 19—to total 37 of North Carolina’s 61 points. Both backcourt players’ offensive artistry often came in clutch moments, whether it was Berry driving the lane to tie the game midway through the first half or burying a three-pointer with five minutes remaining to put Carolina up by five, or Paige’s floater with 1:54 remaining in the first half, his first bucket of the night. Both guards played tenacious defense, with Berry limiting London Perrantes to a 3-for-14 night and Paige getting a hand in Brogdon’s face and forcing him to take unbalanced shots.
As a team, the Tar Heels held the Cavaliers without a basket for an eight-minute stretch in the second half. And while both teams showed signs of fatigue down the stretch, the UNC bench provided some much-needed minutes, with ACC sixth man of the year Isaiah Hicks scoring seven points in 16 minutes of play and Nate Britt and Theo Pinson playing a combined 23 minutes. Those players will be crucial in the NCAA tournament games, when postseason stamina can be hard to maintain. The Tar Heels are currently playing like the team so many predicted they would be and the coming days will foretell if they can continue that intensity, particularly on the defensive end.
“I’ve been harping on, pushing them, cursing them, kicking them, pleading with them, begging with them all year long to understand how important the defensive end of the floor is,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve gotten better defensively throughout the second half of the season … I think the biggest thing is we kept getting better all season. We saw the fruits of the labor immediately here and that sort of gave us a little more confidence, too.”
The Heels will need to maintain that confidence, and their strong defense, when the NCAA tournament begins next week. A likely No. 1 seed in the East, the Carolina faithful will no doubt turn out in droves to cheer on the Tar Heels in Raleigh.
“It was crazy, electric in there,” Pinson said of Saturday’s atmosphere. “I can’t even really explain it. Our fans really stepped up tonight.”
And in a grinding, back-and-forth battle with one of the country’s best defensive teams, the Tar Heels stepped it up as well.