HOUSTON — North Carolina struggled to make perimeter shots and took some time to figure out the 2-3 zone, but the Tar Heels still put together a strong effort in an 83-66 win over ACC-rival Syracuse in the second national semifinal on Saturday night.
The Tar Heels started 0-for-13 from 3-point range and only mustered 12 fast-break points but led for the final 28 minutes of the game despite the Orange’s best efforts for another comeback tournament win.
Syracuse went on a 10-0 run to cut North Carolina’s lead to seven on a Malachi Richardson 3-pointer with 9:51 left but the Tar Heels responded with their first 3-pointer of the game as senior Marcus Paige’s jumper pushed North Carolina’s lead back to 10.
“You’ve gotta keep shooting sometimes; you can’t just stop shooting,” North Carolina sophomore guard Joel Berry II said. “That’s what Marcus kept on doing.”
On the ensuing North Carolina possession, senior Brice Johnson established deep post position on Syracuse freshman Tyler Lydon and hammered a two-handed dunk off a feed from Theo Pinson, letting out a huge scream and igniting the final North Carolina push. After a Pinson 3-pointer on the next possession, North Carolina was back ahead by 12 as the quick flurry of points finished off the Orange for good.
“A little run like that can hurt,” North Carolina sophomore Justin Jackson said. “I think we did a good job of not turning down [our intensity].”
Johnson (16 points, nine rebounds) and junior Kennedy Meeks (15 points, eight rebounds) combined to go 13-for-20 from the field as they had an easy time scoring on the interior for North Carolina while Paige (13 points) buried three crucial second-half 3-pointers to help the Tar Heels advance to their 10th NCAA title game in program history.
At halftime, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams encouraged his team to keep shooting from the perimeter, but also stressed how much damage the Tar Heels were doing inside.
“Coach said, ‘You know what, we’re 0-for-10 from the 3-point line,’ when we came in a halftime,” Berry said. “And I think we were shooting 50 or 60 percent from inside the arc. He gave us that stat line just to get in our head. If we can continue to get it inside, we have more success in there.”
Jackson also added 16 points for North Carolina (33-6) as the Tar Heels have now won 10 consecutive games. Berry II finished with eight points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.
Syracuse (23-14) struggled to 11-for-31 shooting (35 percent) from the field and 3-for-10 shooting from the free-throw line in the first half as North Carolina jumped out to a 39-28 halftime lead.
The Orange tried to utilize a full-court press to get back in the game with just over six minutes left, but the Tar Heel press break didn’t fold like when the Orange had comeback wins over Gonzaga and Virginia the previous weekend in Chicago.
“Honestly, we thought that they weren’t going to press at all,” Jackson said. “But I guess once we were up quite a bit, you figure they’re going to try to get some type of pressure. But we do a good job of getting the ball up the floor.”
“We had that [Virginia comeback] in the back of our heads. I know I did,” Berry said. “I was like, you know, we can’t let that happen. They got on that roll and it was tough for Virginia to stop them. The difference is that we want to play an uptempo game.”
Senior Trevor Cooney led the Orange with 22 points while Richardson finished with 17 points. Michael Gbinije also added 12 points for Syracuse, as the senior struggled to a 5-for-18 shooting night.
The Orange were the first 10 seed to ever make the Final Four, and many believed that they didn’t belong in the tournament in the first place, but Jim Boeheim’s team put together a great few weeks of play by stepping up on the defensive end and getting timely shooting.