About 45 minutes had gone by since the end of North Carolina’s 61-57 victory against Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game, and Marcus Paige was sitting in front of his locker still processing all that had happened.
“My mind’s racing a mile a minute,” he said at one point.
And yet he could think clearly enough to remember what might have been a defining moment of the season, one that came weeks earlier. It was then, during a UNC practice, when coach Roy Williams gathered his players and provided some perspective on the success behind some of his best teams.
“He was like, ‘I’ve never had a team that won a championship that wasn’t great defensively,’ ” Paige said, recalling Williams’ words. “And I think that kind of resonated with us because we talk so much about how we want a championship and want to be successful and be champs.
“Then we were like, yo, we’ve got to start guarding somebody.”
It’s not that Paige and his teammates hadn’t been “guarding somebody,” to use Paige’s expression. The Tar Heels, at least statistically, were among the ACC’s best defensive teams throughout the regular season.
Even so, UNC’s defensive effort – despite the sound statistics it produced – often left Williams wanting more. After that victory against Virginia on Saturday in Washington, D.C., Williams said he had spent most of the season “harping on” the importance of defense.
Of his players, Williams said he’d been “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.”
It appears the Tar Heels finally understood. They played one of their best defensive games of Williams’ tenure – if not the best – during a 78-47 victory against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals.
Then UNC followed that with what it did against Virginia in the championship game. Both Notre Dame and Virginia rank among the top 10 most efficient offensive teams in the nation. And UNC held them both to an average of less than one point per possession – well below their average.
Notre Dame averaged less than .7 points per possession, according to kenpom.com – by far the Fighting Irish’s worst offensive performance of the season. Virginia missed 18 of its 20 shots from the field during the decisive second-half stretch when UNC seized control of the game.
“That’s what we were trying to do all year,” Brice Johnson, the senior forward, said of UNC’s overall defensive performance in the tournament. “It’s just we were outscoring people more (often). Defensively, it’s just this is the one thing we wanted to hang our hat on this week.”
The Tar Heels entered the ACC tournament after finishing the regular season with two of its strongest defensive performances in victories against Syracuse and Duke. Both the Orange and the Blue Devils averaged around 1 point per possession – considered to be mediocre relative to the national average – and both teams committed turnovers on more than 20 percent of their possessions.
And so UNC was building some defensive momentum entering the postseason. And then came its game against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. With less than four minutes to play in the first half, UNC trailed 35-29, and its defense hadn’t been as good as the Tar Heels had hoped.
Then they finished the half on a 10-0 run – one in which defense was the catalyst. UNC forced three turnovers during the final three minutes of the half and didn’t allow Pitt to score. With 24 seconds remaining before halftime, Joel Berry came up with a steal and finished with a layup at the other end.
The play brought the contingent of UNC fans in the Verizon Center to their feet. The sequence also inspired Berry and his teammates to give more defensively, and showed them what was possible.
A couple of days later, after the victory in the championship game against Virginia, Berry described the end of the first half against Pitt as a turning point of sorts. It might prove to be one of the most important few minutes of the season because, Berry said, it “really changed our outlook on defense.”
Before Pitt missed its final four shots of the first half, the Panthers were shooting better than 50 percent from the field. They made 40.7 percent of their attempts from the field during the second half, after the Tar Heels found some inspiration in the way they finished the first half.
The defensive success carried over against Notre Dame and Virginia. In both games, Paige earned the team’s defensive player of the game award, which is decided by the UNC coaching staff after it spends time studying the game on film.
Paige’s defensive effort might have been lost amid the high of the 31-point victory against Notre Dame. His defense against Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon on Saturday, though, was as memorable a factor in the Tar Heels’ victory as any.
Brogdon, the ACC Player of the Year, made six of his 22 attempts from the field, with most of the misses coming over Paige’s outstretched hand. Paige never allowed Brogdon much space, or much of an opportunity to find his rhythm.
“My goals were to be there on every catch for him and to contest every shot,” Paige said. “So every time he was coming off a down screen or reading one of those off-ball screens, which he’s so good at, I just wanted to be there when he caught it and have him feel me, feel my presence.”
UNC’s combined defensive efficiency – which is another way to describe the opponent’s points per possession – against Virginia and Notre Dame was the Tar Heels’ best in consecutive games this season. It was the best in back-to-back ACC games since victories against Miami and Georgia Tech last year.
The difference now, though, is that Notre Dame and Virginia are two potent offensive teams.
“We kept getting better all season,” Williams said of his defense. “We saw the fruits of the labor immediately here (at the ACC tournament) and that sort of gave us a little more confidence, too.”
The Tar Heels were at the defensive best during the ACC tournament. Now they’ll attempt to be even better in the NCAA tournament.