King In The North
Coming into the 2018 ACC Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York much was made about the success had in the building by Notre Dame. The Irish had more appearances (9) and wins (7) than any other team in the ACC. It seemed like an odd metric to hype when trying to convince viewers that a Notre Dame team bolstered by Bonzie Colson's return was a legitimate threat to win the tournament, but in Operation Get Notre Dame Dancing nothing was too meaningless to toss against the wall.
And when you're talking about ACC basketball in the Tri-State Area, you have to give outsized consideration to the Duke Blue Devils. If the Devils dare venture out of the Rat Lord's lair for a nonconference road game, odds are better than even that they'll be playing somewhere in the vicinity of New York City-New Jersey aka Durham North. The media kings of ACC Basketball, Duke is often perceived to be the best thing going in the conference by default, much to the chagrin of the other ACC men's basketball programs.
Such was the stage set when the tournament title game tipped off Saturday night. Things didn't keep to the script, however, as neither Notre Dame nor Duke were playing in the finals. Cast in the final showdown were the quintessential Blue Blood, the North Carolina Tarheels, and the nation's top ranked team, the Wahoos of Virginia. As far as consolation prizes go, the ACC Network and ESPN did quite well from themselves.
And while the game itself may not have achieved instant classic status, it was certainly a worthy entry into the championship game annals of the nation's premier college basketball conference.
The Heels opened the scoring with a Cameron Johnson jumper assisted by Theo Pinson for a 2 to 0 lead. Up until the game's final horn, Pinson would be in the conversation for tournament MVP. The Hoos answered quickly with a Kyle Guy jumper. The Heels would then find Joel Berry II for a three at 18:07 left in the first half. Trailing 5 to 2, UVA was able to tie the game at five the next trip down the court thanks to Devon Hall at 17:37.
The Zay would then make his first appearance of the night, picking Pinson's pocket for a breakaway dunk. UVA took its first lead of the night at 7 to 5 with 17:14 remaining in the first half. Scoring on their third, fourth, and fifth possessions of the game, the Hoos staked themselves to a lead that they would not relinquish the entire night except for a tie at fifteen that lasted all of twenty eight seconds.
The game took on a familiar script. The top ranked Hoos would build a lead that threatened double digits. The underdog Heels would scrap back, making a run to find themselves within striking distance. Perhaps momentum was about to shift to their side when the Hoos' defense would dig deep and get a stop. One stop became two. Two stops became three. The lead would balloon again. Time after time the game fell into a predictable yet tense rhythm.
It was a scene any fan of Virginia basketball was familiar with. Typically, the roles were reversed and it was the Hoos in the chase role. Be it a typical regular season game versus a highly ranked UNC team in the Dean Dome or an ACC Tournament matchup, the pre Tony Bennett era Hoos have witnessed this game more times than they care to count.
You exert so much energy crawling back, both physically and mentally. It takes a toll on the body and psyche when you can't get that last stop or last basket you need. Eventually, your will breaks or you run out of time.
Saturday night, UNC never surrendered their will to the Hoos. Showing mental toughness and pride worthy of the ACC title game pedigree, the Heels battled until the clock would no longer accommodate their effort. Yet, it was still not simply a matter of running out of time either.
This Virginia team is special. Like so many other games during Tony Bennett's tenure, the Hoos secured a boa constrictor's grip on the game itself and would never let go. UNC threw everything they had at the Hoos but to no avail. An extra five minutes, an extra fifteen minutes, an extra sixty minutes? Nothing would have made a difference for Carolina this night. Every Tar Heel attack or counter attack would be repelled no matter how long it took.
The will, determination, and characters of Virginia's top six were just too strong. This was demonstrated perfectly when the long march to the free throw line began in earnest with 1:57 remaining. The Zay went to the line with the Hoos holding a six point lead after a Joel Berry II made three. The Zay calmly made both of his free throws.
The Hoos would close out the game going 10 for 12 from the line, denying UNC the oxygen needed for one last run. It's often the final test in any basketball championship worth winning. Like every other test this season, the Hoos practically aced it.
The reward for their efforts was the program's third ever ACC Tournament championship, the second in the last five seasons. Tony Bennett's two tournament championships puts him squarely on a level all his own in the program's history. Devon Hall becomes the first player in program history to have two tournament championships on his resume, a special honor for a player who is often under appreciated by his program's fans. It was especially fulfilling to watch Hall ace his two free throw attempts during the game's close.
Brooklyn's favorite sons from South Bend and Durham never made it to the final battle. The team in baby blue representing college basketball's royalty was not up to the task either. As the 2018 ACC Tournament ended, the Virginia Cavaliers stood victorious, awash in accolades: tournament champion, presumptive top seed in the NCAA Tournament, unanimous number one team in college basketball's polls, and now King In The North.
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