COLUMN: To this team, an ACC title loss says nothing about NCAA potential

BROOKLYN — You could hear it from just outside the North Carolina locker room: the cheers from Virginia fans as the regular-season conference champions were symbolically fitted for their ACC Tournament crowns.

The Tar Heels knew the ceremony and celebration well, having beaten this team on this stage exactly two years ago. But as they gathered themselves in their cramped quarters away from the Barclays Center court, where Cavaliers danced on a stage littered with blue and orange confetti, head coach Roy Williams had a simple message for his team: forget about it and move on.

He told them about the seven teams he'd coached to a conference tournament title — four at Kansas, three at UNC — and the nine teams he's coached to the Final Four. Only two had overlapped: the 2007-08 Tar Heels and that 2015-16 team that beat Virginia in Washington, D.C. Neither won the national championship.

Of his three NCAA title teams at North Carolina, none had advanced past the semifinals of this tournament. Heck, even last year's title team fell to Duke in the semifinal, a loss this team avenged just a day ago.

 Roy Williams (right) has coached plenty of teams that won their conference tournament championships. None of them won the NCAA title. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Roy Williams (right) has coached plenty of teams that won their conference tournament championships. None of them won the NCAA title. | Photo by Caleb Jones

So after Saturday's 71-63 loss in the ACC Tournament final, there was no sense of panic or disarray. There was only muted disappointment and the realization that this loss hardly precluded postseason success.

"They deserved what they got," Williams said of Virginia after the game. "But my team is getting better. We've got some bigger goals in front of us, and we'll need to get back to work this week."

As he spoke to his team in the locker room, echoes of the championship ceremony rang through the hallways. Two years ago, it was Joel Berry who stood on the stage and accepted tournament MVP honors, the launching pad for his rafter-worthy career.

This time, it was Kyle Guy, whose 16 points led the No. 1 seed Cavaliers (31-2) to score more than any team had against UNC in the ACC Tournament. Meanwhile, the No. 6 seed Tar Heels (25-10) scored their fewest points since the last time they faced ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett and his pack-line defense back.

"Virginia's coach gets them to do the things that he wants them to do," Berry said. "And we've got to start doing that if we want to reach the dreams and goals that we want."

Williams knew his team would have to play a near-perfect game against the nation's top-ranked team to claim the tournament title. Playing three games in the previous three days didn't help, thanks to the two-game losing streak to end the regular season that squandered a chance at a double-bye in the tournament.

But after their January loss in Charlottesville, just playing in this game seemed like a dream too lofty for even the defending champions.

In that loss, the Tar Heels fell apart offensively against Virginia's historically stout defense, scoring 49 points on 29.6 percent shooting to fall to 1-2 in ACC play. They won their next four before losing three straight, culminating in a loss at Clemson — the team Virginia beat on Friday to reach the final — as UNC struggled to play perimeter defense in the slightest and was inconsistent at best on offense.

 Theo Pinson (1) was just one of the many Tar Heels who couldn't get anything going in UNC's ugly loss to Virginia in January. In Saturday's ACC Tournament final, UNC showed just how far it's come. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Theo Pinson (1) was just one of the many Tar Heels who couldn't get anything going in UNC's ugly loss to Virginia in January. In Saturday's ACC Tournament final, UNC showed just how far it's come. | Photo by Caleb Jones

"I think we always believed that we could make it to this point ..." said Cameron Johnson, who scored a career-high 32 in that Clemson loss. "We know what we're capable of, and we still know what we're capable of moving forward."

On Saturday, by a per-possession basis, North Carolina's offense went toe to toe with the best defense of this millennium. Three players finished in double figures — led by 20 points from Luke Maye and 17 from Berry — and the team shot approximately 40 percent both from the floor and beyond the arc. But the defense, a strong suit the past three days, lapsed on a few too many possessions against Guy and co.

Kenny Williams guarded Guy for much of Saturday's game, and the loss hit him as hard as anyone in the minutes after the game. But he knows the lessons from this tournament run had a bigger impact on his team's NCAA potential than a conference trophy would have.

"From the four games, we know how good we can be," he said.

North Carolina is hardly the team it was two months ago or even two weeks ago, having locked in defensively in what's becoming a postseason tradition for this program. It's not the same team as two years ago, either, when the Tar Heels claimed their most recent ACC Tournament title.

That win meant everything to Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the two senior leaders on that team. But it meant so little that April, when Kris Jenkins' shot in the NCAA championship game abruptly ended UNC's storybook season.

This year's conference tournament meant everything to this team for four days and 40 minutes on Saturday. Yet in the moments after the confetti rained down, after the emotions died down and the consequences were realized, it meant nothing.

 Joel Berry (2) knows the feeling of winning ACC Tournament MVP award. He also knows the feeling of winning the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. After Saturday's loss to Virginia, the UNC senior couldn't care less about the former. | Photo by Caleb Jones.

Joel Berry (2) knows the feeling of winning ACC Tournament MVP award. He also knows the feeling of winning the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. After Saturday's loss to Virginia, the UNC senior couldn't care less about the former. | Photo by Caleb Jones.

"We didn't come here just to say that we wanted to get it out of the way. We wanted to win," Berry said. "But it didn't go in our favor, so we've just got to go back and get ready for the NCAA Tournament."

The Tar Heels entered this weekend as the No. 6 seed in the ACC Tournament but will leave Brooklyn as a likely No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with a case for playing in Charlotte in the opening two rounds. They also reached a ceiling that fans hadn't seen in the 31 games before Wednesday, especially on the defensive end, and matched wits with two of the best teams in the country in back-to-back nights.

Last year's team secured a No. 1 seed after losing even earlier in the ACC Tournament than this year's group. As Roy Williams joked after the game, it didn't seem to hurt those players in the NCAA Tournament.

"This might be good for us," said Theo Pinson, who earned first-team All-Tournament honors alongside Maye, "just to put that chip back on our shoulder and see what we can do."

An hour after the North Carolina players left their locker room, maintenance workers were still sweeping confetti off the Barclays Center court. A small contingent of Virginia fans loitered in the seats behind them, soaking in every last moment of the third tournament title in program history.

But the Tar Heels had already moved on. As Williams told his players in the locker room, there's plenty of time to prepare for another NCAA title run. And a conference championship won't change that.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones