Justin Jackson scored 22 points and Marcus Paige made a number of huge shots down the stretch as No. 19 North Carolina knocked off No. 3 Virginia, 71-67, in the semifinals of the ACC tournament on Friday night.
The win was huge for UNC, who has gone through their fair share of struggles this season. They played as well as they have all season long on the defensive end of the floor — until the final 10 minutes, but I’ll get to that in a minute — and they were about as good as you can be against Virginia’s stalwart Pack-Line defense.
The key was Jackson, who hit 8-for-10 from the floor and 4-for-5 from three, with each three seemingly coming at a critical moment in the game. Jackson is just a 26.0 percent shooter from long range on the season, but he’s 8-for-12 in the last four games and has hit 12-for-24 from beyond the arc since Feb. 21st. If he can consistently become a three-point threat and a guy that can be counted on for 13-15 points, it makes the Tar Heels that much more dangerous.
Contrary to their reputation, North Carolina’s strength this season is their ability to get physical along the front line, but with Paige being the lone deep threat, it allows teams to collapse on those bigs. That’s what makes this recent hot streak from Jackson important.
As far as Virginia is concerned, this was yet another example of the slumps they can run into offensively. The Cavs, at full strength, are an efficient offense, but until Justin Anderson gets back to full strength — he’s not; it’s quite clear that he’s having trouble gripping the ball with that left hand — they’re streaky.
We saw that tonight. They looked awful offensively for 30 minutes, and then Malcolm Brogdon took over. He finished with 25 points, hitting eight straight shots and scoring 20 of those points in the final 10 minutes, which cut a double-digit lead to one. They did this in a win at Syracuse. They did it in the loss at Louisville. It’s a bad habit to get into, and one that should help get rectified if Anderson can regain the form he had earlier this season.
The bigger question is whether this loss hurts Virginia’s bid for a No. 1 seed, and the answer is unquestionably “yes”. They’re not out of it yet, and as of today, they’re still going to be on the No. 1 seed line of every bracket projection. But what happens if, say, Villanova, Wisconsin, Duke and Arizona all win their tournament titles? Is there still going to be room for the Cavs?
We’ll have to wait and see.