Heels Withstand Cavs' Rally

GREENSBORO, N.C. – No. 1 seed Virginia’s run was coming. It was inevitable. The fifth-seeded Tar Heels countered with critical plays in the final minutes to withstand the Cavaliers’ charge and advance to the ACC Tournament championship game with a 71-67 win on Friday.

It didn’t matter that UNC shot 50 percent in building a 13-point lead with 8:27 to play or that the Tar Heels held the Cavaliers to 35.1 percent shooting and forced 12 turnovers up that point.

What mattered was not only how UNC would absorb Virginia’s flurry of efficiency in clutch time, but also how they would respond with plays of their own.

Once Malcolm Brogdon finally got dialed in – he scored 16 of his game-high 25 points over the final 8:16 - the momentum changed in Virginia’s favor and the Cavaliers started their charge. Tony Bennett’s squad scored 24 points on its next 11 possessions, a statistic that underlines the Cavaliers’ precision in execution.

Virginia’s lone losses this season came on a Duke 3-point explosion in the final minutes and a blessed heave by a Louisville big man not known for anything offensively.

And yet while the Cavaliers slowly compressed UNC’s double-digit lead as the clock ticked away, the Tar Heels, while not as flawless as in Thursday’s late-game theatrics against Louisville, executed well enough to keep the nation’s No. 3 team at bay.

Poise, which was lacking at times through the heart of ACC play, was on display with refills apparently available behind the Tar Heel bench. UNC made five of its last six field goal attempts to mitigate four turnovers, connected on 9 of its final 11 free throws, including all six in the final 16 seconds, and got three defensive stops in a four-possession stretch in the last 2:30 of play.

“We played at the highest level we have all year and we made enough plays,” Paige said. “Malcolm Brogdon was terrific in the second half, doing everything he could to will his team back, but we made free throws and we did just enough down the stretch.”

One particular back-and-forth that started after a J.P. Tokoto turnover with 2:26 to play stemmed Virginia’s rally and turned the game back in UNC’s favor.

With Virginia trailing 61-60 and presented with a chance to take its first lead of the game, Brogdon drove past Tokoto down the right side of the lane. Brice Johnson slid over in help defense and was able to force a turnover by knocking the ball away.

“During one of the timeouts we talked about that it was North Carolina's defense against Virginia's offense,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “It wasn't just a guy guarding Brogdon. If he started driving, for everybody to get in and try to close the gap and make it, and I thought that was a huge play, probably the most significant play of the game.“

On UNC’s ensuing possession, Virginia nearly forced a turnover as a Joel Berry pass out of a trap sailed toward the midcourt line before Paige tracked it down with six seconds left on the shot clock and 47.4 seconds to play, prompting Williams to call a timeout.

Paige got the ball off a screen at the top of the key, drove Brogdon into the lane, but was unable to slip by him on the right side. He then pumped, got his defender in the air, and pulled up under him for a soft jumper with 41.6 seconds left to push UNC’s lead back to three points.

“We wanted to run a play to get me through a double screen and have the ball at the top to make a play,” Paige said. “I knew it was going to be me and Malcolm. He’s a great defender, but I just wanted to try to get into his body and draw a foul since we were in the bonus. I got him to leave his feet, and then I pivoted through and I was wide open for the layup.”

Two more defensive stops and UNC’s free throw shooting in the final seconds locked in the school’s fourth trip to the ACC Tournament championship game in five seasons.

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