Roy Williams doesn’t have to worry anymore about this year’s senior class winning an ACC Tournament title after his Tar Heels defeated Virginia 61-57 Saturday night at Verizon Center, making them the true ACC champion, winners of both the regular season and tournament.
This game felt like a title bout from the minute go as North Carolina and Virginia answered each other punch for punch. It was the Tar Heels that got started first as Kennedy Meeks scored the game’s first bucket two minutes into the game, showing that this was going to be a defensive, Mayweather-esque battle. Brice Johnson was up next, bringing the folks in baby blue to their feet with a thunderous one handed slam, giving the Heels a 4-0 lead.
Virginia answered of course, Malcolm Brogdon didn’t want to be denied a championship in his senior season either.
Play went back and forth right through the first media break window, with the first stoppage at 12:03 and players gassed on both sides. Brice Johnson laughingly said after the game, “In the first half I think we missed a media timeout, I thought I was going to die out there.”
This was going to be no ordinary game.
The first half stayed true to the first 8 minutes, with the teams going back and forth, neither leading by more than 6. ACC Sixth Man of the Year Isaiah Hicks was the next Tar Heel to wow the crowd, finishing off an Alley-Oop from Marcus Paige to again tie the game at 15-15.
Virginia countered with an 8-2 run, topped off by a tic-tac-toe hockey style assist play from Devon Hall to Isaiah Wilkins inside to Anthony Gill for the easy deuce.
Brice Johnson took over from there, helping North Carolina to close the half on an 11-5 run, himself providing six points and a critical assist at the end of the shot clock to find Joel Berry for three.
The first half finished at 28-28, a low scoring affair with only six total fouls called.
Virginia controlled the first three minutes of the second half as Anthony Gill got two quick buckets and Isaiah Wilkins finished off a thunderous dunk off of a Brogdon missed, fast break layup.
This time it was Paige’s turn to answer as he rattled off nine points over the next five minutes, giving North Carolina their first lead of the second half at 40-39 with 12:11 remaining in the game on an incredibly tough floater as the shot clock was set to expire.
Virginia answered again with a few buckets before Joel Berry knocked down a 12 footer with 7:14 left giving the Tar Heels their second lead of the half. Two minutes later Berry knocked down his third triple of the game, giving North Carolina their largest lead of five.
On Virginia’s next possession, Devon Hall telegraphed a cross-court pass that Justin Jackson intercepted and took the other way for a dunk putting UNC up seven. Virginia fans could feel it slipping away from them.
With less than a minute left, Evan Nolte sunk a three from the corner to get Virginia within three, but the WaHoos couldn’t stop Isaiah Hicks from scoring a tough layup as the shot clock expired with less than 30 seconds left in the contest.
North Carolina fans roared as Brice Johnson put his hands in the air after Joel Berry sank his second of two free throws to put the Tar Heels up 61-57, the game’s final score.
The team’s combined for just 20 fouls as the game was swiftly completed in under two hours. North Carolina teams under Roy Williams have always preferred to play a high-scoring brand of basketball and they knew they would have to adjust for Virginia.
Williams said, “I enjoyed the tempo of the game. I would have liked for it to have gone up and down a little more, I like to win in the 80s and 90s.”
Joel Berry was named the tournament’s MVP as he led North Carolina with 51 points in their three wins over Pitt, Notre Dame, and Virginia. He was the catalyst in the comeback over Pittsburgh, scoring 20 huge points.
Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson finished the game with 13 and 12 points respectively, Johnson also added 9 rebounds. Both of them joined Berry on the first team all-tournament team. Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon filled in the other two spots on that list.
At UNC’s presser Joel Berry, a sophomore, spoke about his teammates over himself saying, “This isn’t about me. It’s about our team, we compete and practice together every day.”
North Carolina is almost certainly a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Roy Williams believes Virginia should be as well.