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Ed Hardin: Virginia wins ACC championship, looking to bigger games trying to break from its past

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NEW YORK — A new era is upon us.

The Virginia Era.

In the final seconds of the 65th ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers’ long-suffering fans stood and screamed to the heavens. Virginia took down nemesis North Carolina 71-63 in a gritty championship game that was played on Virginia’s terms.

Most games are these days. The top-ranked Cavaliers are now the face of the league.

It’s been a long time coming for Virginia, which won its third title, the second in the past five years. This one came after a dominating regular season that saw the Cavs go from an unranked team in preseason to a 17-1 record in the ACC and a clean sweep of the tournament.

Tony Bennett built the Virginia program in his own image, stressing team concepts over individuals and forcing his style of play onto its opponents.

“This is one of the most connected groups I’ve ever coached,” he said.

He then thanked the fans and former players.

The win over Carolina was especially pleasing to Virginia’s fans. The blue-blood Tar Heels have long tortured the Cavaliers, almost from the inception of the ACC, which was formed when seven schools broke from the old Southern Conference.

Virginia wasn’t one of them, technically becoming the first ACC expansion team. Now, the Wahoos are atop the entire league with another tournament to play in which they’ll be seeded first in the entire nation.

Virginia could head to either Pittsburgh or Charlotte this week in the NCAA tournament. The tournament run by the Heels likely moved them into the top six seeds, along with Duke, which might’ve fallen from a No. 1 seed to a No. 2 by failing to get out of the semifinals.

The league is expected to get a slew of schools into the tournament, a big reason for Virginia’s strong resume.

Virginia wore down the Tar Heels, leaving them exhausted and with no options at the end of a long night and an emotional tournament for Carolina. When it ended, Roy Williams was out of ideas. He was also out of timeouts.

Virginia does that to almost all its opponents, strangling bigger and sometimes more athletic teams with a defense unlike any other in the league.

But now comes the hard part.

Virginia has to go national now, something that has long tested the Cavaliers. It’s somehow fitting that a team that wasn’t even ranked in preseason could end up being the greatest Virginia team of all time.

Nothing in this week’s tournament suggested otherwise.

This was a great week for Virginia, and not a bad week for the ACC.

Brooklyn was a strong host once again, a great venue in a great city and a nice distraction. We got some snow, and we got another Duke-Carolina classic. Brooklyn might not realize how fortunate it was in its two-year run to get not one but two such games, the kind of games that will include Brooklyn in the annals of the tournament’s history.

Commissioner John Swofford said assuredly on Tuesday that we will be back here on a regular rotation along with Greensboro, Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

Brooklyn is in the rotation as a way into the New York market and a favor to the league’s Big East tourists. Washington is for Virginia. And the Cavs fans have earned it. They did something almost unheard of here, too. They bought the house for the final, with obvious help from Duke fans choosing not to sell to people in Carolina blue.

North Carolina was in its 35th ACC Tournament championship game, and this might’ve been the first time since 1976 that the Heels didn’t dominate the crowd. That was the most memorable of years for the Cavs and the tournament, the first ACC title for Virginia in the first tournament ever held outside of the state of North Carolina. It was in Landover, Md.

The best tournaments make memories that last forever. It was 50 years ago that Greensboro’s Bill Kretzer dribbled almost the entire game in 1968 when Norm Sloan decided to stall against Duke in the semifinals. State won 12-10 in the first ACC tournament ever played in Charlotte. Carolina crushed the Pack 87-50 in the final, but people still talk about the 12-10 game.

Virginia fans have mostly nightmares about this tournament, but a second championship in five years and a still young and emerging program suggests that the Cavaliers will be back here for years to come.

The confetti fell over the entire program and its fanbase Saturday night.

And then everyone took a deep breath and thought about the future without forgetting the past. The past is never dead at Virginia. It’s not even past.

Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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