Luke DeCock

DeCock: For UNC, ACC title should just be the beginning

His teammates ran to center court, where they jumped together in celebration. Marcus Paige just clapped quietly to himself, like a man who knew there was more work to be done.

Which, as it turns out, is exactly what he was thinking.

“I was very excited, but at the end of the day, we still have work to do,” Paige said late Saturday after North Carolina’s first ACC championship in eight years. “We still have stuff to accomplish.”

Still, these Tar Heels have accomplished plenty this season. The 61-57 win against Virginia ended a four-game losing streak in the title game and the four-year run of Florida State-Miami-Virginia-Notre Dame that not only was an anomaly in ACC history but a tribute to the resurgent strength and depth of the league.

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This season, nobody in the ACC has been stronger or deeper than North Carolina, which the Tar Heels made utterly and convincingly clear.

With the win, North Carolina almost certainly has earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Without question, the Tar Heels will open in Raleigh as they begin their quest to end another North Carolina drought, in search of its first Final Four appearance since the 2009 national championship.

“You know what? There’s some bigger nets I want to cut down,” Brice Johnson said. “I’ll take this piece, but I want another one.”

As reassuring for North Carolina, regardless of the result, was Paige’s play in Washington. After a long and difficult season that started with an injury and saw him labor through the worst slump of his career, Paige clearly has regained his mojo or his confidence or whatever he was missing. He followed his 16 points Friday against Notre Dame with 13 Saturday despite 0-for-7 3-point shooting, but the weight clearly is off his shoulders, and the Tar Heels aren’t going to get where they want to go without Paige at his best.

There was more of that from the Tar Heels this past week – Joel Berry’s snarl, Isaiah Hicks continuing to be more assertive, Johnson levitating around the rim, Justin Jackson showing atypical toughness (especially after regressing during the first half Saturday).

The defensive effort against a tired Notre Dame team Friday was complemented by a collective effort – primarily Paige – against ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon on Saturday, holding him to 6-for-22 shooting.

It all contributed as the Tar Heels did the grinding against the ACC’s expert grinders, slowly and diligently building a lead late, pulling away with the kind of steely authority the Tar Heels have lacked in the past but clearly have acquired over the past few weeks.

“We have faced a lot of scrutiny,” Paige said. “Our toughness has been questioned on several occasions. But I think we’ve answered that call. Our defense has been terrific these past couple weeks, our offense has always been good, and we’re really turning the corner to becoming a complete basketball team.”

It was a fitting conclusion to what turned out to be a very productive week for the ACC in Washington, in terms of atmosphere and aesthetics. This one-year sojourn to Maryland’s backyard, a detour on the way to Brooklyn, N.Y., couldn’t have worked out any better for the conference. The four top seeds made it to the semifinals for the first time since 2007 and eight of the 13 games were decided by single digits, five by a single possession or overtime.

North Carolina and Virginia and their fans most certainly were at home in Washington, where the atmosphere and the league’s top two teams all contributed to a memorable week in what clearly still is ACC territory, Terrapins or no.

This was an old-school ACC game played in an old-school ACC market, with an old-school ACC champion at the end of it – one with bigger goals still ahead.

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

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