BROOKLYN, N.Y. — North Carolina didn’t run out of gas Saturday. It simply ran into the nation’s best college basketball team playing at the top of its game.
Top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Virginia did to the Tar Heels what it has done to just about everyone it has played this season by combining a suffocating defense with an efficient offensive performance on the way to a 71-63 win in the ACC tournament championship game at Barclays Center.
With the victory, the Cavaliers added a tournament title to the ACC regular season crown they won by four games, while ending a UNC run that saw coach Roy Williams’ sixth-seeded team pull off three straight victories before falling short in their fourth game in as many days.
“We had an opportunity and didn’t get over the hump like The Little Engine that Could,” Williams said after his program was denied its 19th tournament title. “That’s what I felt like at times.
“Against Virginia you’ve got to make plays. You’ve got to really, really, really play well and I don’t think we did that. I don’t think we got it to that level.”
It’s not as if the Tar Heels (25-10) played badly. Their 63 points were 10 more than UVa is allowing this season and 14 more than they mustered in a regular season loss in Charlottesville on Jan. 6. They made 10 3-pointers and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc, both above the averages allowed by the 31-2 Cavaliers.
But it still wasn’t good enough, in large part because of a UVA offense that is routinely overlooked by a pack line defense that has become their identity under coach Tony Bennett.
Led by tournament MVP Kyle Guy, who finished with 16 points and four assists, the Cavaliers made 52.9 percent of their 3-point attempts (9 of 17), made their first 16 free throws and 20 of 22 in all while turning the ball over only four times the entire game.
And they did it while using most of the shot clock on a majority of their possessions, a style that both frustrates and wears out the opposition, UNC included.
“You think about offenses, you want 90 points, 100 points a game, but that’s just not what they do,” Tar Heels guard Kenny Williams said. “They’re very efficient in what they do and what they do, they do so well.”
Or as teammate Theo Pinson put it: “You know what they’re going to do. It’s just, can you stop it? That’s the bottom line.”
Despite its best efforts, UNC couldn’t get enough stops Saturday.
“They made a lot of tough shots,” Pinson said.
On the other end of the court, it seemed as though every shot the Tar Heels took was a tough one. They made their share — especially those taken by forward Luke Maye and guard Joel Berry, who continued their resurgence from recent shooting slumps by making four 3-pointers each and combining for 38 of their team’s points.
Maye finished with 20 points while Berry added 18 to earn spots on the all-tournament team. Williams was also in double figures with 12 points.
As much as UNC tried to maintain its offensive discipline against a switching defense that relentlessly contests every cut, every pass and virtually every shot, the urgency to score got the best of it as UVA gradually began to build a lead.
The Cavaliers were never ahead by more than 10 in the game. It just seemed that way because of the pace of the game and the stinginess which which they begrudgingly give up baskets.
“With them and how they play, the slow pace they have, it does kind of put pressure on you to think that you have to go down and take a quick shot to try to get that lead back in one possession,” Berry said. “That where they take advantage of teams.”
The best example of that Saturday came with just under 11 minutes remaining.
Thanks to a 7-0 run that coincided with a four-plus minute UVA scoring drought, the Tar Heels were able to scrape back to within a single basket at 48-46 on a pair of Garrison Brooks free throws with 11:43. They even had a chance to tie the game or take the lead when they forced a rare turnover.
But with the 6-foot-6 Pinson in an advantageous position posted up on UVA’s Nigel Johnson, who stands an even 6-0 on his tiptoes, Berry lobbed the ball over his head and out of bounds to give possession back to the Cavaliers.
Guy took advantage by hitting a 3-pointer to spark an 11-3 run that effectively put UNC away.
“We were right there,” Berry said. “It was just we didn’t dig deep enough to try to get that stop so we can either tie it up or get the lead. It just goes to show that every play is important. It really is.”
Despite the loss, the past four days in Brooklyn were also important for the Tar Heels. Their tournament run helped cleanse the bad taste of two straight losses to end the regular season and sends them into the upcoming NCAA tournament — probably as a No. 2 seed — with renewed confidence.
“We knew we could make some noise in this tournament,” said forward Cameron Johnson, who was limited to 23 minutes and four points against UVA because of a sore back. “We wanted to win, obviously, and we didn’t. But that just gives us a little more motivation to win more games in the (NCAA) tournament.”