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Virginia beats UNC, will enter NCAA tourney among title favorites

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Virginia beats North Carolina for ACC title (1:10)

The Cavaliers win the ACC tournament for the second time in five years with a 71-63 win against the Tar Heels. (1:10)

NEW YORK -- When former Virginia star Justin Anderson watched this year's Cavaliers before the season, he knew something was different.

At the time, head coach Tony Bennett wasn't sure; he was still looking for his team's identity. But even though the Cavaliers were unranked in the preseason Top 25, Anderson saw something in them that separated them from the teams he played on from 2013 to 2015.

"This team is way more skilled," Anderson said. "They just have a little more to their game, a little bit more shiftiness to their game. When you put that with our system and how we play defense and everything, it's a special team."

Anderson was right.

Virginia completed the season sweep of the ACC on Saturday night, beating North Carolina in the tournament title game 71-63.

Heading into the conference tournament this week, there was nothing truly at stake for Virginia. The Cavaliers had the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament wrapped up, and they had their choice of locations and regions.

But you wouldn't have been able to tell all week.

It was business as usual for the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers had no drop-off from previous games, locking down the Tar Heels' offense for long stretches and making big shots when they needed them. That's Virginia in a nutshell; the Cavaliers do what they do, and they don't deviate from what Bennett has instilled in them.

"This was one of our goals coming into the year, too," sophomore guard Ty Jerome said. "Anytime you step on the basketball court, who doesn't want to win? It's a fight you have to have inside of you or you're not going to be successful at this level."

North Carolina actually had more success than most of Virginia's opponents have. The Tar Heels shot 10-for-25 from 3-point range and turned it over only nine times. Luke Maye posed a matchup problem early on, scoring 15 first-half points and finishing with 20.

None of it fazed the Cavaliers.

They led for 39 minutes, 6 seconds, dictating the flow and forcing North Carolina to play at their preferred pace. Kyle Guy was terrific in the second half, constantly making contested jumpers and finishing with 16 points. Devon Hall hit three 3-pointers. Jerome had 12 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.

Virginia will enter the NCAA tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, with the No. 1 ranking at KenPom and the best adjusted defensive efficiency in the past 17 years. The Cavaliers have yet to give up more than 68 points in a single game this season, and North Carolina was only the ninth team to score more than one point per possession against them.

At the ACC tournament, Virginia also showed some offensive potency, a scary sign for its opponents next week. The Cavaliers had their best offensive performance against Louisville since the second game of the season, against Austin Peay, and had a stellar effort against North Carolina in the ACC title game.

Jack Salt had his moments against Clemson in a semifinal. Mamadi Diakite hit double figures in each of Virginia's first two games.

"You don't ever assume defensively that you just got it and you're going to show up," Bennett said earlier this week. "I think we showed some interior scoring. We've showed Ty can make some plays. So I think that balance is important, and these guys play the right way, so I think they're a balanced, efficient team."

The general public might not believe in Virginia because of its recent pre-Final Four losses, but opposing coaches know: The Cavaliers are for real.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Friday night that the Tar Heels would have to play a perfect game Saturday to win. Clemson coach Brad Brownell said before the Tigers played Virginia on Friday that the Cavaliers "just do everything really well."

"We are starting to turn heads now," Guy said. "We just have a lot more to prove. We're not trying to outdo ourselves; we just know how good we are."

And they're not overly concerned if everyone else knows how good they are -- yet.

"If we haven't gotten the respect now, we don't need it," Anderson said. "What we do works."

We'll know two weeks from Sunday whether Virginia is ready to get over the hump and reach the Final Four, but the Cavaliers showed on Saturday night why they'll enter the NCAA tournament among the favorites to cut down the nets in San Antonio.