BROOKLYN – Virginia basketball fans wandered 38 years between the program’s first and second ACC Tournament titles. The wait for the third one didn’t last nearly as long.
The Cavaliers celebrated their second ACC Tournament Championship in the last five years with a 71-63 win against North Carolina at the Barclays Center on Saturday night. The victory completed the season sweep of the ACC Regular Season Championship and the ACC Tournament Championship to duplicate the feat accomplished by the last UVA title winner in 2014. For good measure, it also gave this year’s team a single-season program record of 31 wins.
“I think it’s special,” Virginia senior captain Devon Hall said. “I think it speaks to this group and how tough we are. We’ve been battling all season, so to be able to grab this, I think it’s a special, special moment for us.”
“Like Devon said, it’s special, but it means a lot because we do it with guys that we love,” fellow senior captain Isaiah Wilkins said. “This is a family inside of here, so it adds a little extra to it.”
Saturday’s victory also proved special because it stayed true to character. The Cavaliers shared the ball with 15 assists on 21 field goals and shared the scoring load with four players in double figures and two more with at least six points. Plus, they met two of the program’s main tenets by allowing just 40.8% shooting and committing just four turnovers.
It also followed this season’s familiar script. Virginia took the lead in the first half, led at intermission, and never let North Carolina complete a full rally. The Hoos own a 28-0 record this season when leading at halftime. They held a 34-30 edge at the break and ended up leading for 36:45 of the game.
Virginia built that lead this time behind some 3-point marksmanship in the early going. UVA hit five 3-pointers in the first 13 minutes, going 5-of-8 shooting from long range in that span. The Hoos eventually finished 6-of-10 shooting from 3-point land in the first half with four different players contributing in the category. The usual suspects were in that group with Devon Hall knocking down two triples, while Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome each added one.
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As had been the case throughout the ACC Tournament, however, the Cavaliers also saw another player step up when needed. Mamadi Diakite fit the bill in Thursday’s game against Louisville with 10 points and Jack Salt followed suit with eight against Clemson on Friday.
On Saturday night, it was Nigel Johnson’s turn. After Jerome picked up an early foul, Johnson subbed in at the 15:23 mark and immediately contributed two free throws. Then he too hit a pair of 3-pointers less than three minutes apart at 11:32 and 8:52. The second one broke a 15-15 tie and the Tar Heels never got even again. Prior to those two treys, Johnson had made just 13 distance shots all season long with the last two coming on Feb. 24 at Pitt. He went 2-2 in that game, but had missed his only three attempts in the games since.
“Nigel Johnson, he comes in, he was shooting in conference play like 27 percent from three, and he makes two out of three in the first half, and he wasn’t a great free-throw shooter, but he made his free throws in the first half,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Kids rise up and play better sometimes, and we needed them to not play quite as well, not make all the free throws, not only have one turnover in the first half. I forget, we were down 10, and we got it back to four at the half, and I felt like, okay, we’re hanging right in there. But you’ve got to do a little bit better against Virginia than just hang in there.”
UVA proved Williams right on that count. After UNC had climbed back to the 34-30 deficit at the half, the two teams dueled through the first 10 minutes of the second half. The margin ebbed and flowed during that stretch, but Joel Berry pulled his team closer with a 3-pointer at 12:28 that made it 48-44. Garrison Brooks followed with pair of free throws at 11:43 that cut the lead to two.
The Tar Heels were indeed hanging in there, but they couldn’t get any closer. The teams traded turnovers on attempted post feeds on the next two possessions and then Virginia’s big guns and defense took over. Guy knocked down a jumper on the next possession and moments later Hall converted a pair of free throws.
Berry got his team to within three points one last time with a jumper right after that, but Guy pumped in two more buckets on UVA’s next two trips. De’Andre Hunter then added a bucket to push the lead back to nine points at the 3:34 mark. After one more Jerome 3-pointer, the Hoos put the game away from the free throw line where the converted 20 of 22 attempts in the game.
Guy led his team with 16 points to go with four assists and two steals; he earned ACC Tournament MVP honors. Hall posted 15 points, five rebounds, and four assists to join Guy on the All-ACC Tournament first team. Jerome added 12 points, six rebounds, and six assists to make the second team. Hunter ended up with 10 points on the strength of 8-of-10 shooting at the free throw line. Johnson chipped in the big eight points in the first half, while Wilkins had six points as well.
“We had an opportunity and didn’t get over the hump like the little engine that could,” Williams said. “That’s what I felt like at times.”
North Carolina couldn’t quite close out the comeback thanks to the other big piece of the Virginia formula, its defense. After Berry’s 3-point shot with 12:28 to go, the Tar Heels made just one field goal attempt over the next 9:12, that being Berry’s jumper at the 8:17 mark. They went 1-of-8 shooting with two turnovers and scored just five total points in that span as UVA put together a mini 10-5 run to create some scoreboard separation.
In the end, UNC shot 40.8% from the field with nine turnovers. Luke Maye led all scorers with 20 points, 15 of those in the first half behind 3-of-3 shooting behind the arc, while Berry added 17. Kenny Williams had 12, while Theo Pinson tallied four points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
That defensive effort along with some key shot-making plays led Virginia back to the podium as ACC Tournament Champions.
“I’m so thankful that these guys – it’s a good thing to enjoy a moment like this,” Cavalier coach Tony Bennett said. “If you can’t enjoy that, being with this group of guys and seeing their heart, and we weren’t perfect, but we battled, and the regular season and this means a lot. But we know that it comes from the hard work of a lot of people around us. So again, just very thankful just to see some of the plays made.”