Impressive in ACC, Heels 'still have work to do' in NCAAs

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 11:01 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) As the red, white and blue streamers fell in tangles on him after North Carolina earned its first ACC Tournament title since 2008, senior guard Marcus Paige stood alone and clapped, while his teammates jumped in a joyous huddle at center court.

Paige explained that he went over to chat with Tony Bennett, the coach of runner-up Virginia, before noticing the celebration the rest of the Tar Heels had started.

''I was a little late to the party,'' Paige said with a smile, fiddling with a strand of net in his hands.

''I was very excited,'' he noted, as if that weren't clear, ''but at the end of the day, we still have work to do. We still got stuff to accomplish.''

That, of course, would be an NCAA championship. And if anything became obvious over the course of the Atlantic Coast Conference tourney, which ended Saturday night with No. 7 UNC's defensively dominant 61-57 victory over No. 4 Virginia, it's that everyone should be wary of the Tar Heels during March Madness.

''I think we are the most criticized really good basketball team I've ever coached. And least appreciated,'' North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. ''That's a pretty doggone good basketball team I've got out there.''

Sure is, one that earned a No. 1 seeding and deserves to be a popular pick to get back to the Final Four for the first time since taking home its second NCAA title under Williams in 2009.


''We're a well-rounded basketball team. We pass the ball, can defend, we rebound the ball, pretty good on the backboard. It's a basketball team that we, as coaches, have appreciated and pushed and pushed and pushed,'' Williams said. ''That's what we're going to try to do this week, too.''

North Carolina (28-6) won its 18th league championship not with fleet-footed offense, but with hard-nosed defense. In the semifinals, UNC held Notre Dame to a season-low 47 points, thanks in part to a 9 1/2-minute scoreless stretch. And in the final, UNC limited Virginia to its worst scoring output of the season, including an 8-minute span without a field goal.

''I've been harping on, pushing them, cursing them, kicking them, pleading with them, begging with them, all year long,'' Williams said, ''to understand how important the defensive end of the floor is.''

Clearly, his players get that now.

Here is what else we learned during the ACC Tournament:

VIRGINIA IS READY: Tight games against No. 11 Miami in the semifinals, then UNC - Virginia led 44-40 with about 10 minutes left Saturday - only makes the Cavaliers more prepared for what comes next. Virginia played one of the toughest schedules in the country, aiming to be a team that can translate that experience into a better showing than last year's second-round loss as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. ''I feel like our schedule is definitely going to help us now,'' guard London Perrantes said.

DUKE'S DEPTH: Duke's thin rotation finally appeared to catch up to it in the quarterfinals, where a 16-point lead turned into an overtime loss to Notre Dame. The key was a game-changing 14-point run for the Fighting Irish, when the Blue Devils looked spent. ''Those 6 to 8 minutes,'' coach Mike Krzyzewski said, ''we were really young.''

ANGEL'S ROLE: Miami will go as far in the NCAA Tournament as senior guard Angel Rodriguez carries it. When Rodriguez is shooting the ball and not turning it over, the Hurricanes can beat almost anyone - but if he and Sheldon McClellan miss a beat, they're vulnerable. In a quarterfinal victory over Virginia Tech, the duo scored 40. In a semifinal loss to Virginia, they only had 24 - most after the outcome was no longer in doubt.

CAT'S CALL TO MAKE: The ACC's leading scorer, Anthony ''Cat'' Barber, must decide whether to return for his junior season at North Carolina State or declare for the NBA draft. Barber said he wanted to get his right elbow healthy and then talk to friends, family members and coaches before making the decision. Barber scored 51 points in two tournament games.

0-19: Boston College was historically bad, the first ACC men's basketball team to go 0-19 in league play - and, because its football team was 0-8 in conference action, the first ACC school to put zeros in the win column in the two major sports in the same academic year. On Friday, BC athletic director Brad Bates said in a letter to the school's supporters that he has ''total confidence'' in basketball coach Jim Christian and football coach Steve Addazio.


AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.


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