- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2016

Roy Williams‘ reminder was blunt, yet pointed.

Back in 2009, the North Carolina coach knew his team could forge a lengthy NCAA tournament run if it could add a touch of defense to its scoring prowess. The Tar Heels ended up doing that, claiming their most recent of five national championships by scoring at least 70 points and wining by an average of 15 points in their final five games.

Thus, when Williams recycled that story for his players shortly before the ACC tournament started earlier this week, senior guard Marcus Paige took particular interest.

“These past four or five games, I don’t think it’s arguable that we’ve been guarding people,” Paige said.

North Carolina won the ACC tournament for the 18th time on Saturday, downing Virginia, 61-57, by beating the Cavaliers at their own game. One of the nation’s most stingy teams, the Cavaliers were undone by a 15-2 run that spanned more than eight minutes and included a stretch where they went 0-for-12 from the floor.

They shot 36.5 percent overall, their worst outing of the season, with guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes, two of their top three scorers, shooting a combined 25.0 percent. Brogdon, who scored 26 points in a quarterfinal win over Georgia Tech and 24 points in a semifinal victory over Miami, was held to just 15 points on Saturday and made only six of his 22 shots. Perrantes had eight points, making three of 14 attempts.

The defensive effort was a holdover from the top-seeded Tar Heels’ tournament opener against Pittsburgh, when they reclaimed the lead late in the first half on a 10-0 run, and their semifinal meeting with Notre Dame, which buckled under the weight of a 24-0 run.

The prospect of that offense meeting Virginia, which entered Saturday allowing the second-fewest points in the nation, made the championship game appealing. North Carolina, which likes to run the ball and push the pace in transition, wasn’t successful doing that in a 79-74 road loss to the Cavaliers on Feb. 27.

“I love the way they play,” Williams said. “I love to go up and down the court, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to play basketball. They’re so efficient offensively, we said we have to try to cut down their easy ones and really make them work for it.”

North Carolina did just that. Paige accepted a pregame challenge from assistant coach Hubert Davis to pester Brogdon; only once, he said, when he bit on one of Brogdon’s pump fakes, did he feel like he allowed an uncontested shot.

“I was coming off a pretty good defensive performance against [Notre Dame guard] Steve Vasturia, who’s a good scorer, so I just really wanted this challenge,” Paige said. “I wanted a chance to prove that I could be a hassle on defense, and I think I did a good job.”

His performance was contagious. The Tar Heels’ guards often picked up their counterparts at halfcourt, if not beyond it, and denied Brogdon and Perrantes clean looks from the wings, forcing Virginia to try to pound the ball inside. There, North Carolina began to deny the Cavaliers’ post entries; what worked for forwards Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey in the first half wasn’t as successful in the second.

“Their guard pressure … [has] been causing a lot of teams to kind of take a step back because they’re not used to the defense that they’ve been playing all year,” Gill said. “It’s a little different for us. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment.”

North Carolina spent all but one week ranked in the top 10 this season — it once fell to No. 11 — and figured to be one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament on the strength of its offense.

What lurks beneath, though, could be dangerous. Williams‘ reminder about the Tar Heels’ last championship team didn’t ring hollow. Opponents will expect them to continue to lock down on defense in the NCAA tournament, in which North Carolina figures to be a top seed.

“That’s what we expect from ourselves,” Paige said. “That’s definitely what we expect.”

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