What started as nothing special has turned into something pretty incredible.
Unranked but considered solid when the season began, Virginia has proved to be as precise as a metronome and equally relentless. The No. 1-ranked Cavaliers defeated North Carolina in the ACC Tournament championship game, 71-63, before 18,157 at Barclays Center on Saturday night and head into Selection Sunday as the prohibitive favorite for the overall No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament field is announced.
The Cavaliers, the top seed in the ACC, played a game with almost no blemishes to earn their third crown and first since 2014. They also avenged a loss to the Tar Heels in the 2016 championship game and gave coach Tony Bennett his second crown in three title-game appearances.
“It’s special,” Devon Hall said. “It speaks to how tough we are. We’ve been battling all season, so to grab this, it’s a special moment for us.”
“To win the regular-season ACC, that’s the long haul. [Winning] this is tough,” said Bennett, whose team also did both in 2014. “You want to play a high level of basketball at the end of the year and you have to do that to be successful here.”
Virginia (31-2) made 53 percent of its three-point shots, sank 20 of 22 free throws, committed only four turnovers and, in a game that felt tight almost the entire way, let the Tar Heels (25-10) get only one possession in the second half in which it could tie the score or take the lead.
In another true ensemble effort, tournament MVP Kyle Guy had 16 points, Hall added 15 and Ty Jerome had 12 points and six assists. Luke Maye had 20 points, including four three-pointers, for UNC, which should get nothing less than a No. 3 seed in The Big Dance. Joel Berry II added 17 points and Kenny Smith had 12.
North Carolina’s lone second-half chance for a tie or a lead came and went with little recognition. Garrison Brooks made a pair of free throws with 11:43 to play to cut the deficit to 48-46. On the ensuing Virginia possession, Nigel Johnson committed a turnover and UNC had the ball in a one-possession game. But Berry tried a lob to Theo Pinson that got deflected away for a turnover, and on the next possession, Guy hit a jumper to make it a two-possession game again.
The Cavaliers’ precision play made small leads seem bigger to the Tar Heels.
“It was like we were right there. It’s that we just didn’t dig deep enough to try to get that stop so we could either tie it up or get the lead,” Berry said. “It goes to show that every play is important, it really is.”
“That speaks to our defense and how we stand to get back and build a wall,” Hall said. “That was key for us with this team, especially with them flying up and down the court. But I think we pretty much thrive on defensive stops.”
The Cavaliers established themselves as the aggressor in the early going with a 10-0 run and Carolina spent the rest of the first half essentially chasing them. Virginia led 34-30 at the break.
Carolina was trying to win the title with four wins in four nights, something done only by Duke last season. Still, coach Roy Williams wasn’t using it as an excuse.
“Virginia beat our tails,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”