At last it is happening. At last North Carolina is playing like the team it thought it would play like all along – or at least like the team it thought it'd be on most nights, barring those occasional games and moments when things go wrong even for the best of teams.
Marcus Paige, the preseason All-American, is at last healthy – healthier, might be a better way to put it – and is playing like he did for much of last season. Justin Jackson, the freshman wing forward, is confident and has rediscovered – or discovered, perhaps – the shooting touch he'd been known for.
The Tar Heels are defending well and rebounding well. They're rising in the moment instead of collapsing under its weight. They're finishing games the way a contender would and here they are, a victory away from an ACC tournament championship that appeared so improbable not long ago.
A lot has changed, it seems. UNC arrived in Greensboro searching for confidence, searching for answers for familiar questions and familiar problems – turnovers and defensive breakdowns and second-half collapses. And now?
Now UNC is …
“Competing for championships,” Paige said on Friday after UNC's 71-67 victory against Virginia. “That's what we thought (we’d do) at the beginning of the year. We were preseason top five, top 10, and it's really late in the year, so we're starting to come full circle, I guess.”
About time, right? About time for UNC to reach this point, and play at this level.
The Tar Heels were impressive during their 70-60 victory against Louisville on Thursday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. In that game UNC reversed a troubling trend of late-game collapses. It hung tough, finally, and closed out a victory amid the kind of circumstances that have so often doomed the Tar Heels.
And then came Friday, and the Tar Heels' best performance of the season. During their 71-67 victory against Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals the Tar Heels shot nearly 55 percent – better than any team had shot against Virginia in nearly five years.
UNC led by 11 in the first half and by 13 in the second before Virginia whittled its deficit to seven, and then three, and then one. And then Jackson made a layup in the final minutes to extend the lead back to three. And then, after Virginia cut it one again, Paige made a floater in the lane in the final minute.
The Cavaliers kept coming back. The Tar Heels kept answering.
“We competed at the highest level we have all year,” Paige said. “... And it's a different team than we've seen.”
And now that team will play against Notre Dame – which beat Duke in the other semifinal – on Saturday night in the ACC tournament championship game. Who would have thought?
Nearly a week ago, UNC endured another second-half meltdown in a loss against Duke. Not long before that there was the disheartening defeat at home against N.C. State.
The Tar Heels were 3-4 in February, and they ended January with a 78-68 overtime loss at Louisville, where UNC led by as many as 18 points early in the second half. Now, in March, UNC is becoming the team it believed it would be back in October.
After the victory on Friday night, UNC coach Roy Williams said he and his players felt “fortunate and lucky, happy, everything to be here.” He spoke of the Tar Heels' poise in the final moments, their success at the free throw line and the clutch plays they made.
So often UNC had failed to do what it has in its past two games. And so often Paige, hampered for nearly two months by plantar fasciitis, had played through pain that clearly affected him.
That might be the most significant difference now: Paige is healthy. He's penetrating with more success and creating more lift on his jump shots. He's moving with more ease. He looks quicker. He looks a lot like he did so often a season ago.
“You can tell just by the way he shoots,” said Brice Johnson, the junior forward. “He looks a lot more comfortable in his shot. When he jumps off, he's jumping a little higher on the shot than he was before. Running up and down the court, he looks a lot better. Defensively he looks a lot better.
“So it just doesn't look like he's out there hurting just to play.”
UNC and Notre Dame played only once during the regular season. The Fighting Irish left Chapel Hill on Jan. 5 with a 71-70 victory. Paige missed an off-balance, rushed 3-pointer while time expired and final buzzer sounder, and then UNC didn't lose again for the while.
After that defeat, the Tar Heels won six consecutive games. It seemed, maybe, that UNC was developing then into the preseason contender it hoped to be.
The success proved to be fool's gold, though. The collapse at Louisville halted the Tar Heels' progress. Paige continued to play through pain, Jackson continued to struggle with his shot and with his confidence, Johnson and fellow forward Kennedy Meeks continued their inconsistent play.
And after the defeat at Louisville, the second-half collapses continued, too. Until one day they didn't. UNC reversed that trend on Thursday against the team that helped start it. Which led to Friday, and the Tar Heels' most complete performance of the season.
They were so good against Virginia – so efficient offensively, and often so active defensively – that their 18 turnovers proved inconsequential to the outcome. Paige thought afterward about what he would have said had he been told UNC would commit 18 turnovers.
“I would have told you that we would have been in some serious trouble,” he said. “Because you have to get shots. Their defense is great. They do good job of taking away the inside. But if you turn the ball over, you're just asking for trouble.”
Especially given the Cavaliers' slow pace. Possessions are often fewer in games against Virginia, and with that rarity comes increased value. UNC committed more turnovers than it would have liked, but more often than not it scored when it wasn't turning it over.
“Virginia outworks people and teams give in, and that's how they win a lot of their games,” Paige said. “And we didn't give in today and we worked at the same level, if not higher, than they did.”
It was, by a lot of measures, UNC's finest performance of the season. The Tar Heels defeated the highest-ranked team they have this season, and shot better than any Virginia opponent in years, and UNC, for the second day in a row, won the game late with its poise and execution.
Afterward the Tar Heels danced in the locker room. They've been known to do that after significant victories, and so they hadn't often done that this season. But things have changed.