WASHINGTON – Brice Johnson’s hands were full as he made his way from the Verizon Center court through the tunnel and down the long hallway to the North Carolina locker room. It took both hands to carry the sizable ACC Tournament trophy, not to mention the large event sign wedged between his left arm and the Tar Heels’ new hardware.
The senior All-American was not alone in grabbing ACC Tournament paraphernalia, primarily in the form of signage. While Johnson and fellow senior Marcus Paige had freshly cut nets hanging around their necks, their teammates were grabbing most anything not bolted down as memorabilia for their first tournament title.
“Brice and Nate [Britt] and me live together, so if somebody were to walk in our house the next couple of days, they’re going to see a lot of ACC Championship stuff hanging from our walls,” Paige said.
The Tar Heels earned all of those posters and more, including their first ACC Tournament title since 2008, earlier in the evening by holding off No. 4 Virginia, 61-57, with yet another stifling defensive effort in the nation’s capital. The Cavaliers missed 18 of 20 field goal attempts during a critical second-half stretch in which UNC used a 15-2 run to turn a 44-40 deficit into a nine-point lead with 1:45 to play.
One day after holding Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia scoreless, Paige led the way in locking down ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who finished with 15 points on 6-of-22 shooting.
“The key with him is to have a next play mentality,” Paige said. “He’s going to score. He’s going to make it tough, so if he hits a shot, it’s ‘next play.’ Make it tougher for him the next time. My goals were to be there on every catch for him and to contest every shot. So every time he was coming off a down screen or reading one of those off-ball screens which he is so good at, I just wanted to be there when he caught it and have him feel my presence.”
Without Brogdon’s offensive firepower, the Cavaliers were held to 36.5 percent shooting, including a 33.3 percent effort after halftime. That’s been a tournament trend for the Tar Heels, who held their three opponents this week to a combined 33.7 percent shooting (29-of-86) in the second half.
UNC’s offense has rarely been a question this season, which is standard practice under Roy Williams. Even when Virginia jumped out to an early 23-17 lead due to the Tar Heels tallying more turnovers (8) than made field goals (7) in their opening 19 possessions, the boys in blue were converting when they took care of the ball.
UNC committed just two turnovers over its final 41 possessions and shot 51.1 percent for the game.
The defense hasn’t come as easy, and with the rapid advance of March and the madness it brings, Williams implored his team several weeks ago to flip that proverbial switch that has so often seemed out of reach.
“Similar to the way Coach would always tell us about the ’09 team, he was like, ‘Hey guys, I’ve never had a team win a championship that can’t guard. You guys are doing great offensively, but if you want to be elite, if you want to be a great team, at some point you’ve got to draw a line in the sand and start guarding people,’” Paige said. “And these past four or five games, I don’t think it’s arguable that we’ve been guarding people.”
Two weeks ago, Johnson was an emotional mess in UNC’s locker room following the loss at Virginia. He did not care that his Senior Night was two days away or that his team fought hard in the five-point defeat. Johnson knew that time was running out to win his first championship at UNC.
Now’s he got an ACC Tournament championship to go along with his regular season championship. This senior class, once on the brink of becoming the first under Williams to graduate without a title, marks its legacy by becoming the 11th UNC team and only the third of the Williams era to win both the regular season and ACC Tournament titles.
“It’s crazy,” Johnson said. “Just being able to go into Cameron and beat [Duke] the way we did, and be able to come here and grind it out for three days… We have a very deep team and it showed. We’ve really put our hearts into it and we were able to prove people wrong and show them that we are a tough team.”
After Williams cut off his piece of net on the goal in front of the Virginia bench, Johnson, Paige and fellow senior Joel James climbed up to the platform to complete the ceremonial procedure. Paige already had the other goal’s net around his neck, and Johnson wasted little time in cutting through the final strands to lay claim to his reward.
James, never one to sulk, prompted the Tar Heels’ run on memorabilia by yanking the backboard-sized sign that read “ACC Tournament Champions” off the glass.
“When you go to the White House, you get a souvenir,” James said later. “So I got a souvenir.”
James never actually got a keepsake from the White House, although that large sign, one that he had teammates signing in between media interviews in the locker room, will serve as a reminder of this trip for long enough.
“On the way out, I’m definitely grabbing a couple more posters,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to grab whatever I can. You only go through this one time. This is my last time doing it, so I’m going to get as much as I can.”