Luke DeCock

ACC tournament hits a high note Friday night with semifinals

Virginia’s Anthony Gill has trouble getting past North Carolina’s Brice Johnson during the second half of Friday’s semifinal of the ACC tournament in Greensboro. The Tar Heels won 71-67 and will play in Saturday night’s championship game.
Virginia’s Anthony Gill has trouble getting past North Carolina’s Brice Johnson during the second half of Friday’s semifinal of the ACC tournament in Greensboro. The Tar Heels won 71-67 and will play in Saturday night’s championship game. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said moving the ACC championship to primetime would give fans “more time to tailgate.” It only figures once the ACC started playing its championship at a more social hour, North Carolina would make a point to show up for the dadgum cocktail party.

But no one expected Brey and the Irish would crash it and join the Tar Heels there.

Virginia and Duke said good night Friday night, neither one apparently very excited about claiming an East Regional trip to Syracuse, so instead of an old-school Carolina-Duke final in the last tournament game in Greensboro until 2020, the No. 3 seed and the No. 5 seed will play in the first new-school evening title game.

Notre Dame was able to avenge Duke’s previous revenge for Notre Dame’s previous vengeance, handing the Blue Devils their first loss since Jan. 28 … in South Bend. A dominant first-half performance gave the Irish a 15-point halftime lead that held up for a 74-64 win as midnight approached.

Just as playing the semifinals on Friday night turned out to be better late than ever, the Tar Heels have hit their stride, better late than never. They knocked off top-seeded Virginia 71-67 as North Carolina continues to develop into the team the Tar Heels thought they would be to start the season.

It took everything they had to beat Virginia, especially with Malcolm Brogdon leading the Cavaliers furiously back into the game. But with Justin Jackson starting to play like the game-changing force he was expected to be and the Tar Heels showing that fabled “sense of urgency” on the defensive end, the pieces are starting to click into place.

Tar Heels were flying all over the gym, even into a new chapter of the rivalry with Duke. Brice Johnson went over the end line after a loose ball and plowed into Duke athletic director Kevin White, who had been seated innocently, awaiting his team’s game. As it turned out, that was their only engagement of the tournament.

At about the same time, Roy Williams stomped his foot so hard he lost his balance. He watched from a seated position as Brogdon banged in a 3-pointer anyway. Brogdon scored 12 straight Virginia points over the final five minutes as the Cavaliers cut the North Carolina lead to one inside the final minute.

But Brogdon couldn’t stop Marcus Paige, who extended the lead back to three, driving on Brogdon, getting him in the air and dropping in a floater with 41.6 seconds to play, essentially to seal it – the kind of play Paige might not have been able to pull off earlier in the season with all of his left leg issues.

And those persistently pesky free throws? North Carolina made nine of its final 10.

As the ACC Tournament made its first Friday foray into primetime, some adjustment was required. Friday afternoon, when the tournament would previously have been in the midst of the quarterfinals, the traditional beginning of the long ACC holiday weekend, hundreds of bored fans roamed the lobby of the headquarters hotel.

Progress marches on regardless, and Friday night turned out to be – well, let’s just say the Big East may have been on to something all those years. The atmosphere was electric.

Even if the timing was different, the semifinals had a familiar aura to them with the two titans of the Big Four facing a potential third meeting in the finals and one of the ACC’s traditional powers in glorious resurgence. Only one Big East interloper stood in the way, but Notre Dame helped change the schedule so it was only fitting the Irish had a chance to enjoy it.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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