WASHINGTON, D.C. — North Carolina has been praised, criticized, torn down and rebuilt. The Tar Heels started the season as the preseason No. 1 team in the country and after a fantastic performance in March they’re in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after winning the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles.
It’s the first time Roy Williams has been in the spot of winning the regular-season and tournament titles since winning the national title in 2009. Making things even sweeter for UNC is getting back to the top of the ACC by beating the three teams that have had its number in the past two seasons: Duke, Notre Dame and on Saturday night in a 61-57 victory, Virginia.
“I think we are the most criticized really good basketball game I’ve ever coached and least appreciated,” Williams said after the game. “That’s a pretty doggone good basketball team I’ve got out there. There’s 21 categories that the ACC has. I think in 15 of those 21, we’re in the top five. There’s three of them that we’re at the very bottom: three-point field goal percentage, number of three-pointers made per game, and defense of the three-pointers. Our conference percentage was better in that.”
The game opened up with a beautiful flow. Virginia’s defensive pressure and double-teams resulted in eight North Carolina turnovers but otherwise the game was crisp and stopped just twice for a player to shoot free throws. The 28-28 halftime tie was a result of Virginia not being able to put North Carolina away with those dagger 3-pointers we’ve come to expect from Malcolm Brogdon or London Perrantes, plus Brice Johnson getting great looks at the rim against a smaller UVA lineup.
The MVP for North Carolina was not Marcus Paige or Brice Johnson, though they both had pretty good games, but Joel Berry. Berry has been one of the players who has improved the most from 2015 to 2016, and his improvement mirrored the team’s ability to close out the title game against a good, but cold-shooting Virginia team.
“I would probably say he has been our most consistent player all year long,” Williams said of Berry. “Just with each and every game I thought he got more confidence and more confidence and more confidence. He can play the total game.”
The win at Duke was the first in Cameron Indoor Stadium for seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Beating Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals gave them a win in a rematch of last season’s tournament title game, a game the Tar Heels let slip away. Beating Virginia, a team that won close in Charlottesville earlier this season, to complete the revenge tour has North Carolina looking like one of the best in the country.