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Jeff Eisenberg

North Carolina sheds sleeper label, wins ACC championship

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As soon as the first wave of North Carolina students reached the midcourt circle after Saturday night's 81-67 victory over Duke, critics immediately blasted the Tar Heels for behavior not befitting a blue blood.

"Court storm really not needed," wrote one. "Duke didn't do so after they won in Cameron," echoed another.

It was admittedly eye-opening to see North Carolina fans stream onto the court to celebrate a regular season victory, but perhaps the crowd reaction was symptomatic of how unfathomable the final six weeks of the season have been for the Tar Heels.

Remember when the ACC appeared to be Duke and the 11 dwarfs and North Carolina wasn't necessarily even considered the best of the also-rans? Well, the Tar Heels won the conference championship outright by a game over the Blue Devils on Saturday night, capping an impressive stretch of 12 victories in their final 13 games.

The impact of Saturday's victory is that North Carolina can no longer be considered a sleeper Final Four pick anymore. The Tar Heels won't be sneaking up on anyone now that they've played their way into at least a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and they could even land a No. 2 seed perhaps just by making it to the ACC tournament title game.

North Carolina's transformation from underachiever to conference champion can largely be attributed to the maturation of two prized freshmen: Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.

While Barnes hasn't quited lived up to his preseason all-American hype, the 6-foot-8 forward has blossomed into a formidable defender, a capable scorer and a clutch shooter during the second half of the season. And Marshall has played with poise and assertiveness since entering the starting lineup in late January, running North Carolina's fast break to perfection and demonstrating an ability to get his teammates involved that predecessor Larry Drew II always lacked.

Barnes scored 18 points against Duke and Kendall Marshall added 15 points and 11 assists as the Tar Heels this time protected the double-digit halftime lead they let slip away in the first meeting with the Blue Devils. Nolan Smith and Seth Curry combined for 50 of Duke's 67 points, but they couldn't counteract North Carolina's balance or make up for Kyle Singler's continued offensive struggles.

Harrison Barnes scored 18 points for the Tar Heels (24-6, 14-2), who earned the top seed in next week's league tournament in Greensboro. Kendall Marshall added 15 points and 11 assists as North Carolina avenged last month's loss at Duke in which the Tar Heels blew a 16-point lead in the first half.

In spite of North Carolina's brilliance on Saturday, there are still reasons not to pencil the Tar Heels into the Elite Eight just yet. Marshall is susceptible to quick guards defensively, the backcourt lacks a lights-out outside shooter as a result of Reggie Bullock's absence and the lack of perimeter shooting could spell problems against an opponent who can force the Tar Heels to play a half-court tempo.

Still, considering where North Carolina was a year ago or even two months ago, those problems don't sound so bad.

The Tar Heels were once underachievers. Then they were dark horses. And now suddenly they've returned to their usual status as full-fledged Final Four contenders again.

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