It never gets old so let's say it again: Heels are ACC Champions. Here is what we saw.
Joel Berry: Winner
When Joel Berry was in high school his teams won three straight state titles in Florida. His performance in three ACC Tournament games is a reminder Berry was a big reason for those titles. Berry came out of high school as a player who put up big performances with championships on the line and that mentality has carried over as UNC's point guard. The level of basketball may have jumped several notches but Berry's ability to hit the big shot remains.
Throughout the season, even when Berry has struggled in a game, he still made big plays. In November against Kansas State, Berry shook off a less than stellar game to nail a corner three as part of UNC's rally to beat the Wildcats. In early January, Georgia Tech led by one in Chapel Hill with just over five minutes left. Berry hit a three than followed with a three point play to give UNC the lead for good. He went 5-6 at the line to help clinch UNC's second ACC win. From that point on Berry became UNC's most consistent perimeter scoring option and when Marcus Paige's shot went away, Berry's role became even bigger.
Despite scoring in double figures game after game, UNC did not nominate Berry for All-ACC. Whether Berry took exception to it is not clear but the past three games might signal he took exception to it. While the game was still in the balance versus Pitt on Thursday, Berry was the engine driving the offense. Against Notre Dame he scored just 12 points but was part of a solid defensive effort on the Irish guards.
The ACC Championship was the crown jewel of the weekend. Berry hit threes, drove the lane and in the end secured the win at the free throw line. He has grown into a prototypical UNC point guard in the mold of Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton. He doesn't have their speed but he has the strength to absorb contact and the willingness to take the big shots.
After NC State beat Wake Forest on Tuesday, Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said Maverick Rowan had "steel ones down there" in reference to the freshman hitting big shots to send the Demon Deacons home. As it turns out, the real steel ones belonged to Joel Berry and he has the ACC Tournament MVP award to prove it.
Marcus Paige Doing Marcus Paige Things
Marcus Paige was 0-7 from three and under normal circumstances that would have been cause for alarm. While there was hope that maybe Paige was finding his shooting stroke, the missed threes appeared to indicate another trip on the slump train for the beleaguered senior guard. After Paige missed the first three shots, the "here we go" again feeling was creeping into view.
As it turns out that was just a small piece of the puzzle. What Paige did on the defensive end probably can't properly be put into words. One of the vexing aspects of playing Virginia is Malcolm Brogdon is just too good. He's an offensive machine who seemingly makes all the shots contested or not. Brogdon also had size and strength in his favor matching up with Paige making this one of the toughest covers of Paige's career.
The senior was up to the task holding Brogdon to 4-13 shooting in the first half and 2-9 in the second. The shots Brogdon did hit were largely contested or the type that make you tip your cap and move on. That type of commitment to defending one player impacted Paige's ability to effectively shoot from outside. Realizing this Paige turned his attention to driving the basketball or taking open twos. That worked well and his personal seven point run in the second half kept the Tar Heels in the game. Doing that while taking on the heavy burden of checking the ACC's top player was toughness on a different level.
In the end, Paige did what senior players do. He carried his team when it needed a boost and got his hands dirty in one of the toughest defensive assignments any player will see in the ACC this season.
Defensive Switch: ON
Over a two day period, UNC faced the 6th and 7th ranked teams nationally in offensive efficiency. Notre Dame was an offensive efficiency of 119.4 while Virginia check in at 119.0. On paper, UNC's defensive efficiency, which had moved up to around 30 prior to Friday's action could struggle. After all these were not good match-ups for the Tar Heels. Notre Dame with a small lineup, driving guards and three point shooters have been the type of team to give the Tar Heels fit. Likewise, Virginia's deliberate style and precise execution could prove troublesome for UNC.
In a span of two games, UNC flipped the script. The Tar Heels dismantled Notre Dame handing the Irish a historic low offensive efficiency during the KenPom era. In beating Virginia, the Tar Heels locked the Cavaliers down. Paige's defense on Brogdon was the linchpin but UNC also kept other Cavalier players out of sync. Virginia guard London Perrantes was just 3-14 and the 50% shooter from beyond the arc was just 2-8 from outside. The only effective offensive option was Anthony Gill who score seven of his 13 points on two post moves against Kennedy Meeks and a desperation three with two seconds left.
Notre Dame entered the game with an offensive efficiency of 119.4 and was held to 68.6. Virginia was at 119.0 but was at 87.8 for the game. It was Virginia's third worst offensive efficiency rating of the season and only the fourth time the Cavaliers failed to hit the 100 mark in OE. UNC's offensive prowess is well documented but adding this level of defense to the mix could send UNC to Houston in April.