In perhaps UNC's best effort of the season, the Tar Heels get a career high 22 points from Justin Jackson to squeeze out a 71-67 win over #1 seeded Virginia to advance to the ACC Championship game.
If you drew up a perfect first half against Virginia for UNC, this is close to what it would have looked like. The Tar Heels only struggled was taking care of the basketball, turning the ball over on 34% of first half possessions which led to 14 Cavalier points. Outside of that, UNC was a model of offensive and defensive execution. The Tar Heels shot 52.1% in the first half and got contributions from all over. UNC built a 14-4 lead thanks to tremendous defensive intensity. Virginia answered back to cut the lead to 15-11 before Marcus Paige hit a three than got a layup to extend the lead back out to seven. Every Virginia push was answered as the Heels eventually pushed the lead to 11 before leading by seven at the break.
It was clear going into the second half Virginia would, at some point make a push. That push did not come for quite some time. The Heels traded baskets on the first four possessions after halftime then scored six straight to post Virginia's largest deficit of the season. From there the second half became a prize fight with Virginia taking shots and UNC answering the challenges to maintain at least a three possession lead. Justin Jackson was a key piece to the puzzle hitting a three with 7:09 left to answer a Malcolm Brogdon triple to keep the lead at 10.
With 5:15 left, Virginia finally broke through to get within two possessions. Malcolm Brogdon, who struggled in the first half, showed why he was All-ACC First Team. With UNC up eight, Brogdon scored Virginia's next 10 points to whittle the Tar Heel lead down to one. Jackson answered the ball again to push the lead back to three then Brogdon cut it to one again with 1:20 left.
While Jackson had been UNC's hero for much of the half, Marcus Paige stepped up to do Marcus Paige things. With the Tar Heels leading by one with 47 seconds left and the shot clock at six, Roy Williams called a timeout to set the play. Paige took the inbounds and was forced right but managed to pull up and get the shot off with his left hand to beat the buzzer and put the Heels up three again. After a Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon missed threes, Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson went 4-4 while London Perrantes hit a layup then a three to cut the lead to two. Paige got the ball on the inbounds and sealed UNC's third straight ACC Tournament win to send the Tar Heels to the ACC title game.
After a season of games where the Heels withered late and Virginia's history of strangling a team's hopes, the Tar Heels actually shot better in the second half(57.1%) than the first. The Tar Heels also kept the turnovers down to just seven in the second half with zero over the final five possessions. In a matter of two days UNC has practically erased a reputation of being a team that couldn't finish by slamming the door on two very good teams.
Justin Jackson led the team with 22 points on a highly efficient 8-10 shooting. Marcus Paige was a surprising 4-12 for 13 points but his last four were as clutch as it gets hitting a shot over the ACC's best defender then icing the game at the line. Brice Johnson scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds. Kennedy Meeks was held to seven points but pulled nine rebounds to pace the Heels to a 32-25 edge on the boards. UNC's 54.8% shooting was the highest allowed by Virginia in 163 games dating back to November, 2010.
The story was the Tar Heel defense which was as committed as it has been all season. It took phenomenal plays from Brogdon to pierce the Tar Heel defense which was excellent all night. Rebounding was a key factor in the defense with the Heels collecting 78% of the defensive boards. Virginia was more aggressive in the second half getting to the rim and drawing fouls but UNC had enough offense to weather the storm.
UNC moves to 24-10 overall and likely is locked a solid #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a shot to cut down the nets in Greensboro on Saturday night.