ACC Tournament Capsules: Semifinals Recap and Championship Game Preview

Semifinals Recap

#19 North Carolina 71, #3 Virginia 67

While the Tar Heels led wire-to-wire on the way to their fourth championship game appearance in five years, it wasn’t as simple a victory as the phrase “wire-to-wire” would imply.

North Carolina led by as many as 11 in the first half, and took a 30-23 lead to the locker room, before leading by double digits most of the second half, including a 51-38 lead with 8:33 remaining.  Malcolm Brodgon and London Perrantes led Virginia all the way back to within one on two different occasions in the final 2:52, but Marcus Paige’s six points in the final 4:01 helped the Tar Heels to the mild upset.

Freshman Justin Jackson led North Carolina with 22 points, while Paige had 14 points and five assists.  Brogdon led all scorers with 25 points, with 22 of them coming in the second half as he led Virginia’s comeback attempt.  Perrantes and Anthony Gill each had 12 for Virginia, although second team all-ACC honoree Justin Anderson was held scoreless in limited minutes for the second straight day in his return from injury.

North Carolina shot 54.8% from the floor, which is the highest percentage allowed by Virginia since November 22, 2010, early in the second season of Tony Bennett’s tenure.  The Tar Heels also shot 50% (7-for-14) from three-point range, while the Cavaliers shot 31.3% (5-for-16) from distance.  The Tar Heels ended Virginia’s streak of holding opponents under 60 points, which stretched back to February 14.

North Carolina’s win avenged a 75-64 loss to Virginia on February 2.  The thought of the Tar Heels, or any other team, beating Virginia with 18 turnovers was almost laughable before the game, but that’s exactly what North Carolina did in the victory.

While the Tar Heels are in familiar territory in the title game, they will still be trying to win their first tournament title since winning back-to-back tournaments in 2007-08.  Virginia will now await their NCAA Tournament draw, as they are projected by the consensus of pundits as a one seed in the big dance, even with the loss.

#11 Notre Dame 74, #2 Duke 64

The Fighting Irish dominated early, allowed Duke to get close again, then put the Blue Devils away late to reach the ACC Tournament title game.

Duke’s only lead in the game was 2-0, as the Irish then went on an 18-3 run to take an 18-5 lead, and led by at least nine for the rest of the first half on their way to a 41-26 lead at the break.  Duke methodically clawed their way back into the game throughout the second half, getting as close as 68-64 in the closing minutes, before Pat Connaughton hit a jumper at the end of the shot clock with 1:15 remaining to give the Irish a 70-64 advantage and end Duke’s momentum.  Duke never scored after a Tyus Jones triple at the 3:13 mark that Duke got within four.

Leading Notre Dame to their first ACC championship game was an unlikely hero, freshman forward Bonzie Colson, who had 17 points, including 14 in the first half, while going head-to-head with ACC Player of the Year, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.  While Okafor led all scorers with 28, Colson, who averages just 5.6 points per game off the bench, was a spark for the Irish on their way to the win.

Demetrius Jackson scored 15 and Jerian Grant scored 13 for the Irish.  In addition to Okafor’s 28 points, Justise Winslow had a double-double for the Devils, with 11 points and 11 rebounds.  The Blue Devils shot just 3-for-17 (17.6%) from three-point range, as Duke’s seniors become the first four-year players since 1998 to graduate without winning a conference title.

Notre Dame’s win came after losing 90-60 to Duke on February 7, although they had defeated Duke 77-73 on January 28.  Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is the only former Mike Krzyzewski assistant to defeat Coach K, and added another win in that series.

The Irish, who are trying to win their first conference tournament title in school history, advance to their first-ever championship game in a conference tournament, where they will play North Carolina in primetime on Saturday.  The Irish had previously been 0-6 in conference tournament semifinals.  Duke will await their NCAA Tournament seeding, as they were considered to be a lock for a one seed regardless of their ACC Tournament result.

 

Championship Game Preview

#19 North Carolina vs. #11 Notre Dame
Tar Heels:  24-10, 11-7 ACC, 5 seed
Fighting Irish:  28-5, 14-4 ACC, 3 seed

After both teams pulled mild upsets to reach the ACC Tournament final, you’d be hard-pressed to find a true favorite between Notre Dame and North Carolina.  Both have had excellent seasons, and come in playing great basketball in the ACC Tournament, and both just knocked off an opponent ranked nationally among the top three.

Notre Dame scores 78.5 points per game, while North Carolina scores 77.8 per contest.  The Irish allow 65.2 per game, while the Tar Heels allow 67.8.  Notre Dame has won seven out of eight, and North Carolina has won five out of six.

This championship game will feature a matchup of two of the most dynamic guards in the ACC, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, and North Carolina’s Marcus Paige.  Grant ranks fifth in the league with 16.7 points per game, while Paige is 15th, averaging 13.6 per contest.  Grant leads the conference with 6.7 assists per game, but Paige isn’t far behind, ranking 5th with 4.6 per game.  Grant was a first team all-ACC selection, and finished second behind Duke’s Jahlil Okafor in the Player of the Year balloting, and Paige was awarded third team all-ACC honors.

While most will focus on the backcourt matchup, a frontcourt matchup of a pair of third team all-ACC honorees will be just as strong.  Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton, a Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect who will continue his baseball career when his senior basketball season is over, averages 12.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.  North Carolina’s Brice Johnson, who is among the most improved players in the conference this season, averages 13 points and 7.9 boards per contest.

When these two teams met back on January 5 in Chapel Hill, the game was as even as advertised.  Notre Dame blew an 11-point lead in the second half, but a Zach Auguste putback with 1:07 left was the difference in a 71-70 Irish win.

However, there are definitely differences in the programs.  Notre Dame, even with their rich basketball history, is playing in their first championship game in any conference tournament, reaching the ACC final in their second year in the league, and is trying to win their first conference tournament title in school history, a feat that coach Mike Brey said would be the greatest accomplishment in the history of the program.

North Carolina has definitely been here before, as they are playing in their 33rd ACC Tournament title game, over half of the 62 that have been staged. The Tar Heels are 17-15 in previous finals, and this is the fourth time in five years the Heels have reached the final, but they are looking for their first championship since winning back-to-back titles in 2007-08.  North Carolina is 2-3 in championship games in the Roy Williams era (since 2003).

These teams are both playing at a very high level, and play a very similar brand of basketball, making this a very difficult pick.  Both teams even reached the title game in a similar manner, with North Carolina beating Virginia and Notre Dame beating Duke in the semifinals, with both teams taking a big lead, allowing the opponent to get back within reach, then playing well enough at the end to put away their highly ranked opponent.

While Notre Dame seems poised and due to make school history and win a conference championship, none of North Carolina’s players have won an ACC Tournament title in their careers either.  Carolina coach Roy Williams has, and knows what it will take for his team to win this game.  On the other hand, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is mentored by Mike Krzyzewski, who has won 13 ACC Tournament titles, two of which came while Brey was a Duke assistant under Coach K.

But Roy Williams really has his team peaking at the right time.  After losing to Duke in the regular season finale, the Tar Heels were dominant over Boston College and convincing over Louisville and Virginia, both top 15 opponents.  I wouldn’t have given this outcome too much thought a few weeks ago, when the Tar Heels were in the midst of a stretch of five losses in seven games, but times have changed, and the team has too, in a drastic way.

North Carolina 81, Notre Dame 79.

 

For what it’s worth…
My first round record: 1-1
My second round record: 3-1
My quarterfinals record: 2-2
My semifinals record: 0-2
Overall tournament record: 6-6

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