WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nets are gone.
They took them. And so are the posters, the ones they ripped off the white concrete walls of the Verizon Center. There’s a little confetti left — red, white and blue — on the court, but not much. They snagged most of that, too.
Really, the North Carolina men’s basketball team took everything Saturday. The momentum, the chance to prove itself, and ultimately, the game.
They stole back the ACC Tournament championship, defeating second-seeded Virginia 61-57.
Everyone played a part, from Kenny Williams’ defense on ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to Brice Johnson’s team-high nine rebounds to Marcus Paige’s resilience.
Stick with Paige. Oft-criticized this season for his scoring struggles, Paige carried the load offensively against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament semifinal on Friday. But that was then, and this is now, and there’s another 40 minutes to play.
And for the second night in a row, Paige captured the moment.
No, it wasn’t as pronounced as it was against the Fighting Irish, when he hit four 3-pointers. But down four points in the second half Saturday, his teammates seemingly unable to score, Paige had the ball.
And he took over.
“I was proud of the way I was able to finish inside because I’ve been struggling with that,” Paige said. “To get in there, take some contact and finish and get to the line … was a good sign for me.
“They were kinda giving me the lane, and I was taking it.”
Layups, floaters, cutting to the basket — the senior guard scored seven straight points for UNC to put his team back in the lead, 40-39.
“That’s the Marcus we know,” said Joel Berry, the tournament's MVP.
UVa. would come back and make the game tight, but when his team needed a lift, Paige provided it. He buoyed the Tar Heels' offense, and even if just for a few minutes, he kept the team from falling out of contention altogether.
“He made plays for us. That’s just what he does,” Nate Britt said. “I feel like our team is so deep this year and we have so much talent that he hasn’t had to do that every single night. But when we need it, he brings it out and that’s what he did.”
“That’s just the old Marcus Paige.”
He was a key part, but Paige wasn’t the only one who took what he wanted Saturday.
Williams, averaging less than five minutes per game, helped hold Brogdon to 15 points, but on 6-of-22 shooting. Johnson, even with a sore left leg, grabbed rebound after rebound, limiting the Cavaliers' second-chance opportunities.
When chances presented themselves, UNC stole them. To make clutch shots, to pull ahead late, to stave off the comeback attempt.
Or maybe that isn’t the right word, stole. Maybe it was taking, what Paige and Johnson have waited four years for, or maybe it’s re-taking, of the program’s longtime standing as ACC leaders.
Whatever it was, it happened. And when the final buzzer sounded, they kept going.
Players and coaches alike grabbed Carolina Blue hats and T-shirts, adorned with "ACC Champions" on the front. They snipped every last inch of the white mesh off the rims, and they draped themselves in every strand of streamers they could find. They skipped back to the locker room, hooting and hollering and sending videos on their phones.
It’s only fitting they took the time to celebrate.
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