No. 8 North Carolina 89, N.C. State 80
TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—North Carolina is young, deep, talented—and hardly without flaws.
But by winning their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title since 1998 with an 89-80 victory Sunday over North Carolina State, the eighth-ranked Tar Heels clearly re-established themselves as a force in the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina lost two of its last three regular-season games, but showed why it was ranked No. 1 this season in blowing through three opponents in three days to give Roy Williams about the only thing missing from his coaching resume.
“We are gifted,” Williams said. “For these three days, we came together and played pretty doggone well.”
Tournament MVP Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington scored 16 apiece, Tyler Hansbrough went 11-for-11 from the foul line to finish with 15, and Reyshawn Terry and Ty Lawson added 13 each for North Carolina, which won the national championship two years ago after losing in the ACC tourney.
North Carolina received the top seed in the East Regional and will play Eastern Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
In winning their 16th ACC tournament title, the Tar Heels (28-6) are tied with Duke for the most in conference history.
“I hope they enjoyed the feeling of cutting down the nets and getting those trophies. Winning championships is not easy,” Williams said. “I told them that at maybe the 4-minute timeout. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not concerned about State making a run. Winning championships is not supposed to be easy.”
N.C. State (18-15) reached the title game with an improbable run that included upsets of second-seeded Virginia, third-seeded Virginia Tech and defending champion Duke, which had won seven of the previous eight ACC titles.
But winning four games in four days was too much to ask of the 10th-seeded Wolfpack, especially against a team as balanced as top-seeded North Carolina.
Williams used 11 players, substituting as many as five at a time, while building a 16-point lead. Brandon Costner, Gavin Grant and Courtney Fells led a 29-14 run that trimmed N.C. State’s deficit to 70-69 but the Wolfpack ran out of gas in the last five minutes.
Terry scored eight straight for North Carolina, then the Tar Heels made nine of 10 free throws in the final 1:14 to stay ahead.
Costner led N.C. State with 28 points. Fells had 18 and Grant finished with 10. Wolfpack floor leader Engin Atsur played 32 minutes, but was slowed by a hamstring injury that bothered him much of the season and scored three points.
“By no means am I disappointed,” said Sidney Lowe, N.C. State’s first-year coach. “I told our guys, `You can be hurt, but don’t be disappointed because there’s nothing to be disappointed about.”’
The Wolfpack’s surprising run, with Lowe wearing a snazzy red jacket for each game, was reminiscent of N.C. State’s unlikely run to the ACC and NCAA titles in 1983. Lowe was a star on that team and became the first person to win an ACC title game as a player and also coach in the championship game.
“These guys were absolutely amazing. What they did this weekend, I don’t think too many people thought they could do it. I really don’t,” Lowe said. “But there were some people in that locker room that believed in them and they believed in themselves, and with every day that we won I think the confidence grew.”
The Tar Heels, whose stretch of eight consecutive years without a title was their longest since they went nine seasons without one from 1958-66, got timely contribution from all of its key players. Even reserve Wes Miller got in on the act with two big 3-pointers during a 15-4 run that carried Carolina to a 42-34 lead at the half.
Hansbrough, playing with a faceguard to protect his broken nose, scored nine straight points for North Carolina during one stretch of the second half, and Wright scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half.
Lawson, the Tar Heels’ point guard, was the guy who held it all together. Terry showed veteran leadership by taking over at a critical time, ultimately delivering the biggest blow to N.C. State’s hopes—a 3-pointer that put his team up 78-72 with 3 minutes to go.
“It was a dagger for us,” Fells said.