WASHINGTON -- North Carolina took an unusual path to its first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship since 2008.
The No. 7 Tar Heels relied on defense, tearing a page out of Virginia's book of allowing defense to make the difference and that worked Saturday night.
Guard Joel Berry scored 19 points and North Carolina locked down defensively in the second half to defeat No. 4 Virginia 61-57 at the Verizon Center.
"We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle," said Berry, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "We knew they were going to punch at us and we had to fight back."
Guard Marcus Paige added 13 points and forward Brice Johnson had 12 points for top-seeded North Carolina (28-6).
Much of the good work came on the defensive end for the Tar Heels as they held Virginia to a season-low point total. North Carolina often has been criticized because of its defense, even from coach Roy Williams.
"I think we answered those questions," Paige said.
Virginia, going for its second ACC Tournament championship in three years, shot 36.5 percent from the field.
"We did that against a great team like Virginia," Johnson said of the defense. "We did what we had to do."
Guard Malcolm Brogdon's 15 points paced second-seeded Virginia (26-7), but the ACC Player of the Year had only five in the second half. Forward Anthony Gill added 13 points.
"A lot of times they defended (well) and we got stuck at the end of the shot clock," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "Their defense, they ratcheted it up."
Brogdon finished six-for-22 from the field.
"I just missed a lot of open shots," Brogdon said. "But their defense did a great job flooding the lane when I drove."
North Carolina picked up its 18th title, putting it second all-time behind Duke's 19.
The Tar Heels only led for 16 seconds of the second half until Berry's jumper with 7:12 remaining. North Carolina was up 48-44 on forward Justin Jackson's basket off an offensive rebound, marking its largest lead of the game at that juncture.
"They make you pay when you aren't there on a rotation," Bennett said.
The margin increased to 53-46 with 4:48 remaining after Berry's 3 and Jackson's steal and dunk in transition. Going back to a week earlier in the regular-season finale at Duke, Berry has shown a knack of making key shots.
That continued in Washington.
"Joel Berry came out here and he wanted to win," forward Isaiah Hicks said. "You could see it."
For Williams, he relished the outcome for seniors Paige, Johnson and Joel James.
"It was four long years before they felt this feeling and I love this for them," Williams said.
As North Carolina took the lead, Virginia missed 12 shots in a row as part of two of 20 stretch from the field.
By the time the Cavaliers broke through, they had faced a 55-46 hole with less than 1:40 to play.
Brogdon and forward Evan Nolte hit 3-pointers to close Virginia within 55-52.
Hicks connected from the lane for North Carolina to extend the lead to five.
The Tar Heels, who are often praised because of their interior strength, went to a relatively small lineup for stretches of the second half and that seemed to work in containing Brogdon and guard London Perrantes.
The score was tied at 28-28 at halftime.
Virginia held the largest first-half lead at 23-17, but North Carolina pulled ahead on a jumper by Paige.
Brogdon's 3-pointer put the Cavaliers back on top before Johnson's dunk tied it for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina committed eight turnovers in less than 13 minutes to begin the game. The Tar Heels shot 54.5 percent from the field in the first half, including 10 of 15 from two-point range.
It took Virginia nearly four minutes to score.
There was a long stretch of nonstop action. The under-16 media timeout didn't come until 12:03. There were a total of six fouls called in the first half.
NOTES: The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds met in the ACC Tournament final for only the second time in a 15-year span. ... North Carolina reached the final a record 34th time compared with eight trips for Virginia. ... Roy Williams coached the Tar Heels in the title game for the seventh time in his 13 seasons. North Carolina has faced seven different schools in that time. ... Virginia senior G Malcolm Brogdon entered the game 20 points from a spot on the program's top 10 career scoring list. ... Virginia won the only regular-season meeting with North Carolina, prevailing 79-74 on Feb. 27 at home.