BROOKLYN — The North Carolina basketball team knew what lay ahead of it at the beginning of the week.
Head coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels needed to win four games in four days to capture the ACC Tournament Championship, something no North Carolina team had done before in a conference tournament.
Though UNC (25-10) ramped up its defensive intensity and made the plays it needed to reach the title game, top-seeded Virginia (31-2) proved too much once North Carolina got there. Despite a strong offensive showing against the Cavaliers’ vaunted defense, the Tar Heels couldn’t get the stops needed and fell 71-63.
UNC's players refused to blame the wear and tear of four consecutive games and instead focused on individual mistakes that cost them the game. Senior Theo Pinson played on deep runs in the NCAA Tournament before, which he said should have prepared the Tar Heels for this week’s test.
“I was probably just as fatigued going into the national championship game,” Pinson said. “But when that championship’s on the line and the adrenaline is running, you’re doing everything you can to win.”
Williams didn’t excuse his players from being tired. Instead he credited Virginia, which lost just one game in ACC play and entered the tournament as the nation’s top-ranked team.
“It's not playing four days in a row that's hard,” Williams said. “It's playing Virginia on the last day.”
The Cavaliers proved themselves deserving of their ranking as they jumped out to an early lead and eventually ground UNC down. Head coach Tony Bennett’s menacing pack line defense wears down even the most rested offenses.
Virginia entered Saturday leading the NCAA and ACC in scoring defense. Its 53.1 points per game were 11 points better than the conference’s next best defense, Clemson.
“The way they defend, they don’t make it easy,” Kenny Williams said. “You’ve got to work for everything you get, and then you’ve gotta go on the other end and work for that. They’re really good at what they do.”
But, in bursts, North Carolina managed to score on Virginia. UNC’s 63 points were tied for fifth most allowed against the Cavaliers’ defense in 33 games. Luke Maye and Joel Berry managed to find their shots, scoring 20 and 17 points, respectively.
Surprisingly, it was Virginia’s methodically probing offense that doomed UNC. The Cavaliers shot 9-17 from three, turned the ball over only four times and shot 20-22 on free throws.
When they needed a score, ACC Tournament MVP Kyle Guy rose the occasion. Guy led the Cavaliers with 16 points and his shots looks were often contested. Early in the second half, he extended the Cavaliers’ lead to 41-34 by draining a three with Kenny Williams’ hand in his face.
“That’s why he’s first team (All-ACC),” Pinson said. “He made some really big shots, he’s so good coming off of screens and hitting those off-balance shots.”
Virginia’s 71 points were its third highest point total since Jan. 3. Though the Tar Heels knew what to expect, defending for 30 seconds takes a toll.
“It can be frustrating,” Cameron Johnson said. “Just as much as their defense is difficult to play against, their offense has a funky pace to it, as well. They run things a little bit different.”
Pinson lamented coming so close to a championship and losing — something he experienced in 2016’s national title defeat to Villanova. But he and the Tar Heels know what lays ahead is more important.
Last season, UNC fell to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals but turned around and strung together six wins to capture a national championship.
This week, the Tar Heels made a number of leaps. They proved they could hang defensively with some of the nations’ best offenses, saw major contributions from their bench and fortified their tournament résumé with wins over two ranked teams: No. 24 Miami, then No. 5 Duke.
“A part of me says it’s no good if we didn’t win the championship,” Johnson said. “But there’s a really big time opportunity ahead of us, and I think we can get a little bit of momentum from this run and use it to our advantage.”
Virginia offered a litmus test for the Tar Heels to see where they compare with another national title contender. And Saturday proved that UNC has work left to do.
“You gotta play as perfect a game as you can,” Maye said of the Cavaliers. “They’re a great team, they’re number one in the country for a reason.”
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