Pittsburgh-North Carolina Preview
North Carolina has reached the ACC tournament championship game four times in the previous five years only to lose every one of them, with last season's defeat particularly disheartening.
The seventh-ranked Tar Heels are hoping to finish the job this year as they begin against Pittsburgh in Thursday's quarterfinals in Washington D.C.
North Carolina (25-6) lost three straight tournament finals from 2011-13 before a 90-82 defeat to Notre Dame last year which remains stuck in many players' memories. The Tar Heels led by nine before allowing a stunning 26-3 run to trail by 14 with 2:54 left.
''We've got to finish it out,'' sophomore guard Joel Berry II. ''That's been a big thing for us, just finishing games. This year we're going to go in with the same mindset that we did last year - going in there and competing. Just this time, we've got to finish it out and accomplish that goal that we want.''
The nation's preseason No. 1 team, the Tar Heels endured ups and downs with the loss of star guard Marcus Paige for the first six games with a broken hand and starting forward Kennedy Meeks for seven with a knee injury. Still, they finished in sole possession of first place in one of the nation's toughest conferences with a 14-4 mark and still may be in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
''I think it's probably the least appreciated, most criticized championship team I've ever had,'' coach Roy Williams said. ''Everybody's (like): `Well, y'all are not tough, you blow this lead, y'all can't guard anybody, y'all can't shoot.' And I agree, but we figured out a way. So you've got to have some toughness there.''
North Carolina closed out the regular-season title with Saturday's 76-72 win at then-No. 17 Duke. Brice Johnson had 18 points and 21 rebounds and Meeks added 12 and 14 as the Tar Heels amassed a 64-29 advantage on the glass.
The only time in the previous five years in which North Carolina did not reach an ACC tournament final was two years ago, thanks to a loss in this round to Pittsburgh.
The Tar Heels also fell to the Panthers (21-10) the next season before finally avenging those two defeats with an 85-64 rout Feb. 14. They shot 59.3 percent - the highest allowed by Pittsburgh this season - as Johnson scored 19 and Paige added 15.
''Obviously they won the league, we know how good they are,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. ''We're going to give it our best shot.''
Dixon and his team may be in a more relaxed mood after Wednesday's 72-71 victory over Syracuse. The coach felt his team needed to win its ACC opener to ensure an NCAA Tournament berth after losing six of nine to close the regular season.
''We're in good shape,'' Dixon said. ''We played one of the toughest schedules in the country overall. It's clearly shown that by the numbers, if you go by facts, and not opinions.''
Cameron Johnson scored a career-high 24 points off the bench on a day when top scorers Michael Young and Jamel Artis combined for 19.
Point guard James Robinson led the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio in the regular season at 4.37, with Paige third at 3.07.