This season, the Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament saw 15 of college basketball’s greatest teams battle it out on the court of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. At the start of the tournament, many analysts believed that the Carolina Tar Heels would become back-to-back ACC regular season and tournament champions, a monumental feat in the most competitive conference in the nation. However, an impressive four-game run by the Duke Blue Devils allowed Mike Krzyzewski’s team to emerge as tournament champions.
In the quarterfinals, the Blue Devils dismantled Rick Pitino’s Louisville team in the second half as the Cardinals were unable to convert at the free throw line. Louisville’s star guard Donovan Mitchell was forced to sit on the bench with eight minutes left in the second half as Duke’s Luke Kennard began to heat up from behind the arc, swinging the momentum of the game to give the Blue Devils the victory. On the other end of Tobacco road, the Tar Heels dominated the Hurricanes of Miami in their quarterfinal game, coupling tenacious defense with outstanding performance by the Carolina big men to win 78-53.
In the semifinals, the legendary blue bloods of the ACC met for the third time of the season. It was the first ACC Tournament matchup between the Heels and the Blue Devils since Duke’s victory in the championship game in 2011. In the first half, Carolina forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks dominated from inside the paint, giving the Heels a seven-point lead at halftime. In an unexpected hiccup, junior guard Joel Berry II picked up a fourth foul at the start of the second half, which fo
rced the guard to the bench for more than 10 minutes. Duke guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard capitalized on Carolina’s foul trouble, exploding from behind the three-point line to outscore the Tar Heels by 15 points during Berry’s stay on the bench.
Many Carolina fans blamed Head Coach Roy Williams for his team’s loss of composure in the second half, and Williams acknowledged this sentiment in the post game press conference.
“I think the most-disciplined, the best-coached team, the most-focused team is the one that won the game tonight,” said Williams. “ I didn’t do as good a job as Mike did.”
Last season, Berry won the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, and scored 28 points in the final regular season meeting between the Heels and the Blue Devils this year. Understandably, his absence from the court in the second half allowed the Blue Devils to roar back from a 13-point deficit and dominate the Heels inside and out.
“It was brutal. I put the blame on me… I just wish I was out there to help them and be able to compete, but it got taken away,” said Berry after the 93-83 loss.
For the championship game, the Blue Devils rolled over the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame for a 75-69 victory in the Barclays Center. While Notre Dame center Bonzie Colson produced an impressive statline with 29 points and nine rebounds, Duke’s Tatum recreated his scoring ability of the previous nights and took control of the game in the final minutes.
As ACC Tournament champions, the Blue Devils seem like they have finally put together the necessary pieces to excel as a team, which could potentially fuel an extended run in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s like night and day from the one stretch when we were 1-4,” said freshman forward Jayson Tatum after the win over Carolina. “We’re clicking at the right time.”
Despite the Heels’ poor performance in the conference tournament, the team secured the top seed in the South region of the NCAA tournament and the third seed overall. Although this Duke team did not live up to their lofty expectations set during the regular season, the Blue Devils look strong as the second seed in the East region of NCAA tournament.
Photo courtesy of fansided.com