COLUMN: UNC showing shades of 2016, 2017 in ACC Tournament run

BROOKLYN — Maybe it's too early for comparisons, for juxtaposing stats or emotions between two teams alike only in name and key leaders. But humor me, if you will.

Last year, North Carolina sat dejected in a spacious but suffocating locker room in the Barclays Center, counting down the mistakes after a late-game collapse to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. The Blue Devils were four seeds their inferior, but the Tar Heels couldn't best the team they had beaten just six days earlier.

A month later, they were national champions.

It's hard not to think about last year when watching these Tar Heels, especially after they dispatched the newest iteration of those Blue Devils in Friday's 74-69 ACC Tournament semifinal win at the Barclays Center, advancing to Saturday's championship game against No. 1 Virginia.

Luke Maye and Joel Berry — the two tournament heroes from last season — had 17 and 13 points, respectively, to lead the charge in a battle of the ACC's top two offenses. No. 2 seed Duke (25-9, 11-7 ACC) made a run, as it always does, but sixth-seeded North Carolina (26-7, 13-5 ACC) showed more resolve in the second half than last year's eventual NCAA champions did in this same building.

"The bottom line is we made enough plays," head coach Roy Williams said, "and we're still playing."

 Joel Berry (2) fought through Duke's defense throughout Friday's ACC Tournament semifinal win. It was in stark contrast to 2017, when he watched from the bench as the Blue Devils made their inevitable run. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Joel Berry (2) fought through Duke's defense throughout Friday's ACC Tournament semifinal win. It was in stark contrast to 2017, when he watched from the bench as the Blue Devils made their inevitable run. | Photo by Caleb Jones

That 2017 tournament loss to Duke hung in Joel Berry's mind during Friday's win. He spent most of the second half of that game on the bench, saddled with four fouls, as the Blue Devils charged back from 13 points down to eventually win by 10. It was the same scene in last Saturday's loss in Durham, though Berry's absence was marked by his shooting inefficacy and not his availability. Again, holding a 13-point lead, the Tar Heels watched Grayson Allen and a bevy of one-and-done NBA talents storm ahead for a 10-point win.

On Friday, North Carolina once again built a sizable advantage in the first half, racing out to a 16-3 lead and pushing Duke's deficit to 16 points with 5:33 left. But as the Blue Devils scored 13 unanswered to pull within a possession, the demons of past losses emerged. UNC tried unsuccessfully to bleed the clock, fumbling away four possessions in the final minutes, and it missed its final seven field-goal attempts.

It felt like last year, and last week, all over again.

"At the end of the game, you've still got to be aggressive ..." Berry said. "That's just a learning lesson."

But the Tar Heels, as they did so often in last year's NCAA Tournament, staved off elimination. Behind 35 minutes of brilliant ball movement and persistent defense — two staples of the 2016 and 2017 teams — they had built enough of a cushion to withstand Duke's desperate rally, toppling a team four seeds their superior and avenging losses from six and 364 days earlier.

"You always expect the run but you do your best to stop it or just weather it when it comes," said Kenny Williams, UNC's defensive leader. "I think we did a better job of weathering it tonight."

 Kenny Williams (24) took a crucial charge against Grayson Allen to seal UNC's ACC Tournament semifinal win over Duke. It was a defensive play emblematic of the Tar Heels' late-season progression. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Kenny Williams (24) took a crucial charge against Grayson Allen to seal UNC's ACC Tournament semifinal win over Duke. It was a defensive play emblematic of the Tar Heels' late-season progression. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Williams said the Tar Heels' defense is exactly where they want it to be at this point in the year, after weeks of middling effort and execution during ACC play. For weeks, it was a troubling sight for Roy Williams, who's built his championship teams on the defensive end but bemoaned this team as his worst defensive group yet.

Yet in the ACC Tournament, North Carolina has allowed 64.3 points per game — its best three-game stretch of the season. If the defense reaches the same heights as previous years, can the team do the same in the NCAA Tournament?

"I think so, especially with the way we're playing right now ..." Kenny Williams said. "We're getting stops. And that's been our Achilles' heel. We haven't been to get stops when we needed them. But we're getting stops now, consistently."

At this time last year, after failing to stop Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, the Tar Heels had seven losses but a No. 1 seed in their sights. This team, fresh off its semifinal win over its rival, has two more losses than its predecessors but has faced the toughest strength of schedule in the country. North Carolina has a case for a No. 1 seed — and a win against Virginia, tough as it might be, would all but guarantee it.

Saturday's game will be a rematch from UNC's January loss in Charlottesville, but it's also a throwback to the 2016 tournament final, when the Tar Heels muscled their way through the Cavaliers' pack-line defense en route to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and a spot in the NCAA title game.

This year's Virginia team might be better yet. Maybe North Carolina is, too, at least at its peak.

 The Tar Heels' offense went cold in the final minutes against Duke, just as it did for much of the game against Virginia in January. Cam Johnson (13) and co. know they'll have to be much more efficient to break through the Cavaliers' pack-line defense on Saturday in the ACC Tournament final. | Photo by Caleb Jones

The Tar Heels' offense went cold in the final minutes against Duke, just as it did for much of the game against Virginia in January. Cam Johnson (13) and co. know they'll have to be much more efficient to break through the Cavaliers' pack-line defense on Saturday in the ACC Tournament final. | Photo by Caleb Jones

"We've got to go in there and try to play the perfect game," Williams said. "If we try to play the perfect game and play as close as we can possibly play to that, then we'll have a chance to win."

In January, UNC mustered just 49 points and coughed it up 19 times in a 12-point loss. Berry scored 17 points, most on the team, but it took 17 shots to do so. It was, coincidentally, as bad an effort as the one in Charlottesville a year ago, when the Tar Heels scored 43 points in a 10-point loss. It was UNC's second-to-last loss of the season, followed only by the Duke semifinal defeat.

After this year's loss in Charlottesville, the Tar Heels won 10 of their next 13 games before dropping two to Miami and Duke. But they've won three games in as many days in Brooklyn, and they've channeled a similar energy to those teams from the past two seasons. You can see it on the court — in the fluidity of their offense and chemistry of their defense — and the players feel it, too.

This year's team isn't last year's team. It's also not the same team that beat Virginia in Washington, D.C., in the 2016 ACC Tournament. But it's not the one that lost to the Cavaliers earlier this year, either.

"I just don't want us to get complacent," Berry said. "I feel like we still have another gear that we can get to."

The Tar Heels are as selfless as past years, assisting on 24 of 28 field goals on Friday. They're locked in defensively, too, recording a season-high 11 steals in the win. They're rebounding better than any team in the country despite a smaller lineup, thanks to a persistent effort crashing the boards.

 The Tar Heels don't have the size as they did in previous years, but they're the best rebounding team in the country because of how effectively they box out and crash the boards — like they did against a bigger Duke team in Friday's ACC Tournament win. | Photo by Caleb Jones

The Tar Heels don't have the size as they did in previous years, but they're the best rebounding team in the country because of how effectively they box out and crash the boards — like they did against a bigger Duke team in Friday's ACC Tournament win. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Pinson joked that the late-game dramatics on Friday merely added to the tally of game experiences for him and Berry. But it's true. Those two, alongside half of UNC's current roster, underwent the trials and tribulations of a title run last year. They survived the late-game scare against Arkansas, orchestrated the buzzer-beating drama against Kentucky, fought through the foul-ridden final against Gonzaga. (learning lesson)

This team's adding to its basketball memory bank, too. The Tar Heels have picked apart zone defenses against Syracuse and Duke, with Virginia's defensive monstrosity coming Saturday. They've fought through endless first-half runs, such as those against N.C. State and Miami, and they've warded off late ones like Friday's against Duke. As Berry said, it's a learning lesson for the reigning champions.

Kenny Williams says the players have spoke nothing about the NCAA Tournament. They haven't talked about their potential seeding, or how Friday's win could help secure a spot in Charlotte for the first two rounds. They can't afford to think about an NCAA championship, he says, when an ACC one is at stake.

But they've heard the chatter. They know, as defending champions, they haven't garnered the same praise as even their ACC counterparts from national pundits. They've danced around the top 10 all year despite having more quality wins than any team in the country.

It's no bother to them. With how the Tar Heels are playing now, in every facet, it's only a matter of time before everyone has to take notice.

"They can talk about it all they want," Kenny Williams said, "but I know when we step out on that court for that 40 minutes, we're gonna give you one hell of a game."

They'll give Virginia one hell of a game on Saturday, just as they did two years ago. And maybe, like last year, they'll have another six games left in them, too.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones