In a statement showdown between two surefire national title contenders, the North Carolina Tar Heels avenged some conference tournament demons and downed the Virginia Cavaliers, 61-57, in the ACC championship game Saturday night at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
After serving as the ACC tournament runner-up four of the past five years, the Tar Heels put on a defensive clinic in order to capture their third conference title under head coach Roy Williams and their first since 2008.
The win also put the Tar Heels in position to capture a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed Sunday night, according to InsideCarolina:
That should lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for UNC. The question is whether the Tar Heels will be in the South or the East.— InsideCarolina (@InsideCarolina) March 13, 2016
In what amounted to a tactical matchup for the ages, Virginia dared North Carolina to shoot, as Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett repeatedly called for immediate and delayed double-teams on the Tar Heels' bigs.
The low-post traps proved quite effective, especially in the first half. But North Carolina solved them thanks to the combination of Brice Johnson's (12 points, nine rebounds, five assists) stellar passing and some strong shooting from the backcourt tandem of Marcus Paige (13 points) and Joel Berry II (19 points). Berry was named ACC tournament MVP, per InsideCarolina.
And just as the Tar Heels started to heat up down the stretch, Virginia sputtered terribly.
With Paige assuming the form of Malcolm Brogdon's shadow, the Cavaliers entered a collective and crippling cold spell that swung the title in North Carolina's favor, per ESPN's Adam Amin:
UNC has had a great night of defense. Think it's even affected Virginia's confidence on their open looks cause THOSE usually go down.— Adam Amin (@adamamin) March 13, 2016
Case in point: After Anthony Gill (13 points, six rebounds) converted a layup with nine minutes, 51 seconds remaining in regulation, UVA went the next 8:10 without a made field goal.
All told, Brogdon scored just 15 points on 6-of-22 shooting, and Virginia was limited to 36.5 percent shooting from the field.
Both sides played tremendous defense throughout the game's first 20 minutes, but the low-scoring nature of the affair took away from the fact that the Cavaliers and Tar Heels executed like true national championship contenders on both ends of the floor.
Although Virginia shot just 41.4 percent from the field and 3-of-11 from three in the first half, active hands on defense forced the Tar Heels into eight turnovers before halftime. As a result, the Cavaliers were able to attempt eight more shots than their conference rivals and enter the locker room knotted at 28.
ACC Men's Basketball on Twitter offered a deeper look at some other key statistical disparities from the opening frame:
However, it should be noted that Carolina corrected its turnover problem on the fly. As the News & Observer's Andrew Carter explained, Carolina committed all eight of its first-half turnovers during the first 12:34 of regulation and closed out the ensuing 7:26 without a giveaway.
A composed close to the first half calmed Carolina down some, and Paige's lockdown defense ultimately set the tone for a win that could have serious Selection Sunday implications.
With a conference championship in tow, the Tar Heels look like a solid bet to claim a No. 1 seed. However, as Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel opined, Carolina doesn't own signature wins comparable to those touted by other No. 1 seed contenders:
UNC will be no lower than a No. 2 seed. If committee gives a 1 seed it will be on "eye test." Heels don't have resume of KU/UVa/MSU/Ore./OU— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) March 13, 2016
But even if the Tar Heels aren't able to secure a No. 1 seed, they're entering the Big Dance backed by boatloads of confidence.
As if a thorough thrashing of Notre Dame on Friday night wasn't good enough, the Tar Heels validated their credentials with a physically imposing win over Virginia and now look like a real title threat, according to ESPN's Jeff Goodman:
There have been lots of questions about North Carolina's mental toughness this year. Tar Heels have showed plenty this week in ACC tourney.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 13, 2016
North Carolina could always score. But Tar Heels have been guarding of late -- if that continues, they should wind up in Houston.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 13, 2016
There's still plenty of work to be accomplished for a North Carolina team that's just starting to flex its muscles, but there's no doubt the Tar Heels are entering the NCAA tournament playing their best ball of the season.
CBS Sports' Jon Solomon snapped a picture of Williams rocking a fresh new championship lid:
Roy Williams is dancing and wearing his hat backward on podium. pic.twitter.com/CSkuStEl7Z— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) March 13, 2016
"Our guys didn’t die," Bennett said, according to Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "They kept hanging in there, gave ourselves chances. Obviously we didn’t shoot it as well."
Regarding his poor shooting night, Brogdon explained that he wasn't going to be deterred by repeated misfires.
"Your confidence doesn’t really waiver [sic]," Brogdon said, per Barber. "You just have to keep shooting."
"Even on tough shooting nights you just have to believe that the next shot is going to go in," Brogdon added, according to Barber.
Providing perspective from the other side of the game's most compelling one-on-one matchup, Paige discussed his tactical approach to limiting UVA's top scorer: "Malcolm Brogdon does so many things so well," Paige said, according to ACC Men's Basketball on Twitter. "I knew I had my hands full - I just wanted to be there on every catch and contest."
Finally, Paige provided a thought that summed up how Carolina was able to send Virginia tumbling to runner-up status: "Good defense even affects your open shots," he said, according to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore.