by Brian McNally

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – In a season where parity has reigned in college basketball, the first ACC tournament in the District in more than a decade stayed true to form.

The upsets were mild all week and the favorites advanced one after another. That set up a thrilling championship game on Saturday night at Verizon Center between North Carolina and Virginia, the tournament’s top two seeds.

A back-and-forth game where neither team could open up more than a small lead, the top-seeded Tar Heels took a 61-57 win thanks in large part to a 4-minute, 15-second scoreless drought for Virginia late in the second half as a four-point lead quickly turned into a nine-point deficit.

North Carolina outscored the Cavaliers 21-13 down the stretch to secure its 18th ACC tournament title. But not before the two teams put on an entertaining display – intense, physical, but with few fouls whistled – that cemented their status as national title contenders heading into the NCAA tournament next week.

The Tar Heels, ranked seventh in the latest AP Top 25 poll, leave Washington as champions. Virginia entered the night ranked fourth.

Picking a potential NCAA champion from the field of candidates that will be chosen on Selection Sunday is difficult. There are legitimate contenders well down in the national rankings. Arguments can be made for teams that will be as low as a No. 5 seed, if not lower.

It was a fitting coda to an entertaining tournament in Washington: the first time the ACC has come to the District since 2005. A 50-50 crowd roared for each team from the opening tip. Every contested call was booed, all contact a foul and both sides had stretches of play that brought their fans to their feet.

This is the new ACC, where the tournament will rotate more consistently out of North Carolina, its traditional home. The next two years it will be played in Brooklyn before returning home to Charlotte in 2019 and then Greensboro in 2020.

“My first three years it’s been in the same place,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “Obviously, it’s a little more of a home crowd for us when we play in Greensboro…But it’s cool to be somewhere else, be in the capital, witness some things. I’ve never been to D.C. before. As long as we keep winning, I’m going to love D.C., I guess.”

There were close games galore. Even on Tuesday, first-round games played before sparse crowds in the afternoon were competitive. North Carolina State outlasted Wake Forest 75-72.

On Wednesday, Pittsburgh outlasted Syracuse in what was essentially an elimination game for NCAA tournament consideration, 72-71. The very next game featured Duke holding off the Wolfpack, 92-89. Clemson suffered a colossal choke when it blew an 18-point second-half lead to Georgia Tech in an 88-85 loss. And in front of a wild, partisan crowd Virginia Tech took care of Florida State, 96-85 in a high-scoring affair.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame erased a 16-point deficit against Duke in an overtime win on Thursday and Miami wasn’t flustered by the Hokies obvious homecourt advantage in an 88-82 victory.

The semifinals weren’t very competitive on Friday. But North Carolina and Virginia more than made up for that in the Saturday night championship game. At one point in the first half the two teams went 4 minutes, 10 seconds without a single whistle, making shots at each end of the court.

Save for a six-point lead by the Cavaliers (23-17 at 5:19 if the first half), neither team ever led by more than four points until North Carolina went ahead 51-46 on a Joel Barry II 3-pointer with 5:26 to go. There were six ties and 13 lead changes before the Tar Heels pulled away in the final minutes.

Barry II was named the tournament’s most valuable player. He scored 19 points in the final and his three 3-pointers.

The loss stung Virginia, which beat North Carolina at home last month. But the Cavaliers (26-7) will still be a high seed in the tournament. Two years after coming within a few baskets of an Elite Eight appearance, Virginia is right back in the mix.

“It means I’ve recruited well, we’ve recruited well,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. “Our staff has. We’ve got the right kind of guys. They play the right way.”

North Carolina, meanwhile, is making critics forget about a mid-season slide. Once 19-2 and on a 12-game win streak, the Tar Heels lost back-to-back games to Louisville and Notre Dame on the road, barely survived on the road against a Boston College team that went winless in the conference and blew a late lead at home against rival Duke.

North Carolina (28-6) has now won seven of its last eight since the Duke game. That lone loss was in Charlottesville to the Cavaliers on Feb. 27 by a 79-74 score.

“I think we are the most criticized really good basketball game I’ve ever coached and least appreciated,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “That’s a pretty doggone good basketball team I’ve got out there….We’re a well-rounded basketball game. We pass the ball, can defend, we rebound the ball, pretty good on the backboard. It’s a basketball team that we as coaches have appreciated and pushed and pushed and pushed. That’s what we’re going to try to do this week, too.”

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