Luke DeCock

Virginia absolutely the best, but UNC proves it's not that far behind

If it wasn't clear before, it was inarguable Saturday night that Virginia – love it or hate it – is very much for real. There may not be an obvious NBA-bound star like Justin Anderson or Joe Harris, both of whom sat behind the Virginia bench, but there's no question Kyle Guy is just as comfortable making the big shot as either of them was.

This didn't start out as Virginia's season in the ACC but it unquestionably and inevitably ended that way. The Cavaliers lost only one of 21 conference games, and that by one point in overtime, on their way to capturing their second ACC title in five years with a 71-63 win over North Carolina on Saturday.

The ACC's Cobra Kai – the relentless basketball cult everyone else loves to hate – was as ruthless against the Tar Heels as it was everyone else. There may not be as much raw talent as other Tony Bennett teams, including the 2014 ACC champions, but there's an almost obsessive commitment to doing things how Bennett wants them done and an almost maniacal effectiveness in doing it.

“There goes our humility,” Bennett said when his players brought the ACC championship trophy with them to the press conference.

The best Virginia teams of the past few years suffered from brutal NCAA tournament draws – losing to both Michigan State and Syracuse as those talented teams made unexpected Final Four runs – but this team will choose its route, presumably through Charlotte and Atlanta, and face the easiest path the committee can offer as the certain No. 1 overall seed when the bracket is revealed on Sunday.

Given all that, the good news for North Carolina is the gap between the best team in the ACC and the country and the Tar Heels is a small one. The Tar Heels produced the second-best offensive performance against Virginia's vaunted defense this season in terms of efficiency – only West Virginia was better, in one of Virginia's two losses – and walked away not so much unhappy with their defense as shaking their heads at the shots Virginia hit, Guy especially.

“That's why he's first team (all-ACC),” North Carolina's Theo Pinson said. “He made some big-time shots. We knew coming in he's so good coming off screens, hitting those off-balance shots. That's what they pay him to do, to shoot.”

After a quiet first half, Guy came out aggressive in the second half, cutting hard of Virginia's screens and looking to score. By the time the Tar Heels figured out their countermove, the margin of victory was set. Generally speaking, North Carolina contested Virginia's shots. The Tar Heels just couldn't stop the Cavaliers from making them. Virginia's not going to lose very often going 9-for-17 from 3-point range, and the Tar Heels did about as much as they could to stop that.

It remains an open question who will join Virginia in Charlotte, assuming the Cavs choose that spot over Pittsburgh, the latter an option should they want to get away from partisan ACC fans by sharing a site with Villanova instead. Duke went into the week ahead of North Carolina but the Tar Heels certainly made up some ground in Brooklyn. Nashville may be a nice consolation prize for either team (and its fans).

With N.C. Central's surprise MEAC championship on Saturday – a Triangle sixth seed that *was* able to beat a Virginia top seed – all four Triangle teams will (or absolutely should, at the least, in the case of N.C. State) be in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 … when none of the four managed to make it to the second weekend that year.

It's hard to imagine that happening this time around; both Duke and North Carolina have all the attributes of potential Final Four teams, and their ability to keep things close with Virginia – Duke lost by two at home six weeks ago – is one indication that they're within striking distance of the gold standard.

That is, unquestionably at this point, Virginia. The Cavaliers closed out the ACC season the same way they tore through it by never letting North Carolina close the gap in the second half, inexorably chipping away at what hope the Tar Heels had left at the same time North Carolina's legs started to show the strain of trying to win four games in four days with an impossibly short bench by Roy Williams' standards, especially with Cam Johnson's back locking up on him.

“Guys, the ACC is really a freaking – really, whatever you want to add there – good league,” the North Carolina coach said. “So to go through this and have some success puts us in position. We still think we have a chance.”

But the Tar Heels will start what Williams refers to as “the big tournament” refreshed and fully resupplied with hope and confidence, knowing a third meeting with Virginia – or a fourth with Duke – is a long way away, if it happens at all. All three teams will have designs on San Antonio, and all three may end up reenacting the past two days three weekends from now.

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

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