Brice Johnson was walking around the North Carolina locker room a few minutes before midnight on Saturday night, a net around his neck that he said he wouldn’t be taking off any time soon.
Hours earlier that net had hung from one of the baskets at the Verizon Center, where North Carolina rallied for a 61-57 victory against Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game. Johnson, the Tar Heels’ senior, and his teammates had then climbed a ladder and cut the nets down.
And now Johnson was wearing it like a trophy, hanging below his wide grin while he talked about his desire to never take it off. Not too far away, Marcus Paige, another UNC senior, was sitting in front his locker. He was wearing a net, too – the one from the other basket.
Neither Paige nor Johnson had plans of taking them off. Not after what they’d been through to reach this point, a moment they’d envisioned for so long that had finally become reality amid another tough, grit-fueled victory defined by UNC’s defensive tenacity.
“They might have to fight me for it,” Johnson said of his net, “because I plan on keeping this as long as I can.”
The Tar Heels (28-6) had to fight for everything else on Saturday night. They had to fight to overcome their early turnover woes, and to win a game with a slow, prodding pace – much slower than the Tar Heels prefer. They had to fight to come back and then to hold on.
UNC entered the postseason still surrounded by those long-held questions about its toughness, its heart. There should be fewer of those now, after UNC beat Virginia (26-7) at its own game and won an ACC tournament championship for the first time since 2008.
“We’re ecstatic about surviving here,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
And in some ways that’s what it was – survival. UNC led by as many as nine points with less than two minutes remaining before Virginia cut its deficit to three points after 3-pointers from Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC Player of the Year, and Evan Nolte.
Brogdon’s 3 ended a Virginia shooting drought that had spanned more than eight minutes, and Nolte followed with one that cut UNC’s lead to 55-52 with 57 seconds remaining. Then Isaiah Hicks, UNC’s junior forward, made an important shot in the lane to push the lead back to five.
The Cavaliers, ever relentless, trailed by two points after another 3-pointer with two seconds remaining. From there, though, Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ sophomore guard who received tournament MVP honors, made a pair of free throws to seal UNC’s 18th ACC tournament championship.
“These guys right up here, I think they played their tails off today,” Williams said.
He was talking about Berry, who made clutch shots late, and about Paige, who made some important shots earlier in the second half, and about Johnson, the first-team All-ACC forward who at times on Saturday served as a decoy more than anything but who still finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Weeks earlier UNC had been in a position to beat Virginia in Charlottesville. Instead the Tar Heels endured another one of those losses that prompted questions about whether they could win that kind of game – one against a difficult opponent in a difficult environment.
UNC has positively answered all those kinds of questions lately, though. It did during a tough senior night victory against Syracuse and in a tougher victory at Duke to end the regular season. And now this, the victory on Saturday night in the ACC tournament championship game.
“To win outright the ACC regular-season championship and back it up by coming here and winning the tournament kind of validates the season we’ve had,” Paige said.
He scored four points during the first half on Saturday and then nine points in the first eight minutes of the second half. Paige made two layups that both times cut Virginia’s lead to two points, and then he made a jump shot that gave UNC a 40-39 lead with about 12 minutes remaining.
Paige’s jumper brought many in light blue to their feet at the Verizon Center. Moments later, though, Nolte, the Cavaliers’ senior forward, silenced the crowd with a 3-pointer that put the Cavaliers back in front.
Nolte’s 3, though, was an oasis in a desert for Virginia. It was one of two shots from the field that the Cavaliers made during an 10 ½-minute stretch in which UNC went from trailing by four to leading by seven, 53-46, with less than four minutes to play.
Virginia during one stretch missed 12 consecutive shots and 18 of its 20 attempts from the field. The Cavaliers missed long attempts and short ones, and usually missed amid significant defensive pressure. Defense, after all, defined UNC’s success in the ACC tournament.
“I’ve been harping on, pushing them, cursing them, kicking them, pleading with them, begging with them all year long to understand how important the defensive end of the floor is,” Williams said. “We’ve gotten better defensively throughout the second half of the season.”
The Tar Heels played their best defensive game of the season on Friday in a dominant victory against Notre Dame in the tournament semifinals. UNC was its best defensively on Saturday when it most needed to be – when it turned its deficit into a late lead that proved insurmountable.
While the Tar Heels increased their defensive intensity, they decreased their carelessness on offense. UNC committed eight turnovers during the first 13 minutes and two the rest of the game. Instead it was the Tar Heels’ defense that left Virginia flustered for long stretches.
UNC led by two points when Berry made one of the game’s most important shots – a 3-pointer from the right side that gave the Tar Heels a 51-46 lead with about 5 ½ minutes to play. Moments later, after a Virginia turnover, Justin Jackson scored on a layup that gave UNC a 53-46 lead.
Berry, who made all three of his 3-point attempts, spoke of his confidence afterward.
“That’s the reason I hit those shots, just because it was all about confidence, just using my instinct,” he said.
Paige and Johnson joined Berry on the all-tournament team. For Paige and Johnson, especially, the victory on Saturday night represented the culmination of a long-held vision to win the ACC tournament.
They’d been here, in the tournament championship game, and lost against Miami in 2013. And lost against Notre Dame last season. Johnson and Paige had endured, too, the most tumultuous period in UNC basketball history – one rife with off-court trouble and drama.
“Yeah,” Paige said, “it’s been a long ride. But it’s been fun, though. This is what makes it all worth it, to have a team come together in my last year and work through a lot of adversity.”
He was wearing that net around his neck. Johnson had the other one around his.
More than a year ago, before their junior season, Johnson and Paige had taken a picture with the ACC championship trophy. Later they joked that it jinxed them, after they’d made it to the championship game last season only to lose.
And so they savored it on Saturday night. Paige said the trophy felt heavier than he thought it would. Johnson carried it off the court while the band played the Tar Heels’ fight song. Johnson said at that moment he had one thought: “Finally.”
“We finally were able to finish what we started,” he said. “We started from last year, we were in the championship game. We’re walking out of there and the confetti was going. But this time I was able to stay out there, and the confetti was falling on me.”