Tar Heels beat Syracuse 83-66, go for title Monday

(Chris Steppig/NCAA Photos via AP, Pool)

HOUSTON, TEXAS – North Carolina survived a poor three-point shooting night and a Syracuse run in the second half to beat the Orange going away, 83-66, and advance to the NCAA championship game against Villanova Monday night.

It will be the 10th time that a North Carolina team has played for the national championship with the last title coming in 2009.

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Against Syracuse, the Tar Heels missed 11 straight three pointers but they were able to get the ball inside throughout the game. Despite hitting only 4 of 17 threes, the Heels shot 54 percent for the game, including 60 percent in the second half. Carolina ended with 50 points in the paint, including 16 from Brice Johnson and 15 from Kennedy Meeks. Swingman Justin Jackson also got inside several times and ended with 16 points, including 12 in the second half.

“We weren’t playing our game at the beginning,” said guard Joel Berry, who finished with a game-high 10 assists. “We couldn’t get it uptempo. We weren’t shooting well so we tried to penetrate and get it inside.”

Getting inside for easy baskets, the Tar Heels eventually wore down the Orange, who tried to pressure and trap when they got down big but they appeared out of gas. Carolina repeatedly split the traps or got fouled and hit free throws, and broke the press for fast break dunks and layups.

In the first half, there were six ties and six lead changes but Carolina actually started to take control with its best player, Brice Johnson, on the bench with two fouls.

With the score tied at 18, the Tar Heels went on a 9-0 run highlighted by a Kennedy Meeks old-fashioned three-point play and a transition jumper by Marcus Paige. Carolina never trailed again after getting up 27-18 although the game was closer than the final score would indicate.

The Tar Heels took their first double-digit lead of the game on a highlight reel driving layup by Theo Pinson with 1:20 left in the half, making it 37-27. Carolina upped the lead to a first-half high 12 points at 39-27 before settling for a 39-28 halftime lead.

In the second half, Carolina upped the margin to 17 points at 57-40 with 12:26 left on a Berry layup. But Syracuse went on a 10-0 run, highlighted by three-point shots by Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson, to cut the lead to just seven with 9:51 to go.

UNC coach Roy Williams got as mad as he’s been all season during the run as Carolina turned the ball over two of three times down the court, and then watched a missed shot roll between several Tar Heels before a Syracuse player came up with it and scored.

“I screamed as loud at my players as I have all year,” Williams said. “My pulse went up quite a bit.”

But Paige finally hit Carolina’s first three of the game and it came at an opportune time, giving the Heels a 60-50 lead and starting a 10-3 run that helped the Heels overcome the Syracuse run.

“I got really excited when he hit that three,” Williams said. “It couldn’t be more appropriate that it was Marcus Paige who did that for us.”

During Carolina’s responding run, Theo Pinson canned a three from the top of the key and Meeks aggressively scored after two tips to give the Heels control of the game again at 67-53.

It never got closer than 11 the rest of the way as Carolina worked the margin up to a game-high 19 points with a little more than a minute to go.

Box Score

LIVE GAME BLOG:

10:50 p.m. North Carolina ran clock over the last couple of minutes and got some easy baskets to salt away an 83-66 victory over Syracuse to advance to the NCAA championship game against Villanova Monday night.

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10:44 p.m. Syracuse has been aggressive offensively, looking for drives or screening for threes, mostly by Cooney. Cooney has 18 of his 22 points in the second half. And they have been aggressively trapping and pressing full court on defense. But Carolina has had the answer. Paige hit his second and third threes of the game and Jackson got loose on a fast break for a dunk. The Heels are up 77-64 with just 2:27 to play.

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10:34 p.m. Tar Heels lead 67-53 with under seven minutes to play. Carolina had gotten up to a game-high 17 point lead but then Syracuse went on a 10-0 run that had UNC coach Roy Williams hot. After a tongue-lashing the Tar Heels stopped the bleeding with their first and seconds threes of the game – one by Marcus Paige and one by Theo Pinson. Pinson has had a couple of good minutes. In addition to the three, he passed to Brice Johnson for a dunk. Meeks aggressively scored after two tips.

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10:24 p.m. Carolina’s guards may not be hitting threes – and they still aren’t – but they a breaking the Syracuse zone and either aggressively going to the hoop or passing to someone who does A touch pass from Marcus Paige to Kennedy Meeks for two highlighted the last few minutes. The Tar Heels have led by as many as 17 points and are up 57-43 with under 12 minutes to play.

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10:19 p.m. The Tar Heels are doing a good job penetrating the lane and Brice Johnson is hitting little jumpers in the lane. UNC up 55-39. Hicks picked up his fourth foul with 12:57 to go.

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10:08 p.m. North Carolina is still cold from three but it doesn’t appear to matter. After a Brice Johnson steal leads to a Marcus Paige layup to make it 47-33, Syracuse calls timeout. Syracuse’s Cooney hit a three and the Orange tried to press but the Heels quickly broke it and Paige threw to Justin Jackson for a reverse layup.

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HALFTIME: After missing a slew of three pointers, North Carolina got back to its game plan to attack inside and the Tar Heels edged away with a 39-28 halftime lead. The Tar Heels have missed all 10 three pointers but they’ve hit 68 percent of their two-point shots. The four big men have combined for 27 points, including nine from Kennedy Meeks, who has not missed a shot.

Interesting that Syracuse came out early from the locker room to warm up.

During a 9-0 run that created some separation, Carolina was able to split the zone to get short jumpers, layups or follow shots. During one stretch, the UNC defense held Syracuse to only two of 13 shots. During another stretch, Syracuse didn’t score for more than three minutes.

Isaiah Hicks has three fouls for Carolina while Brice Johnson has two and Theo Pinson has two. For Syracuse, Gbinjie, Richardson and Lydon all have two fouls.

This game could go one of two ways. Syracuse could hit some threes to get back in it and possibly steal a win. Or Carolina will continue getting it down low but also push the ball more aggressively up the court to blow Syracuse out.

Syracuse uncharacteristically missed seven of 10 free throws in the half. This would be a nail biter if they had hit free throws. It still could be a nail biter.

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9:43 p.m. The Tar Heels took their first double-digit lead of the game on a highlight reel driving layup by Theo Pinson with 1:20 left in the half, making it 37-27. Carolina upped the lead to a game-high 12 points at 39-27 before settling for a 39-28 halftime lead.

Isaiah Hicks was taking over the game with a jumper in the lane and a dunk over two defenders but he picked up two quick fouls, one while a sub was waiting to get him out of the game. Hicks has three fouls and Johnson has two.

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9:36 p.m. After Carolina went on a 9-0 run, Syracuse scored six of the next eight points to draw within five. The Tar Heels currently lead 33-26 with 2:13 left in the half. UNC coaches are wanting the Heels to push the ball up court quicker after rebounds and turnovers. But they aren’t really doing it. The Heels have gotten inside the zone pretty well and Syracuse is turning the ball over more than normal.

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9:29 p.m. Carolina has hit five two pointers in a row and three free throws in a row. The Tar Heels are in the middle of a 9-0 over the last two minutes of the game. Syracuse called timeout. A 15-footer by Marcus Paige prompted the timeout.
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9:22 p.m. At the under 8 minute mark of the first half, North Carolina took the lead with a nifty pass from Justin Jackson to Kennedy Meeks who scored and was fouled. Heels up 20-18 and Meeks will shoot a foul shot after the break. The bad news for Carolina is that Johnson picked up his second foul with nine minutes left in the half and he’s on the bench. Syracuse’s Michael Gbinije, his team’s leading scorer, also picked up his second foul and he’s on the bench.

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9:13 p.m. Maybe there is something to this talk about shooting in a massive stadium. Neither team is lighting it up but Syracuse has hit a couple of three pointers whereas Carolina has missed all eight threes it has tried. The Tar Heels are shooting just 33 percent and Brice Johnson, who has hit 87 percent of his free throws in the post season, missed two free throws. The game feels like its more of the kind of game Syracuse wants.
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9:05 p.m. Neither UNC nor Syracuse is sharp to start this one. A couple of ominous signs for the Tar Heels – three different Heels have missed a three pointer and Brice Johnson has already picked up a foul. There have already been three ties and two lead changes.
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8:54 p.m. Carolina is wearing home white while Syracuse is wearing bright orange. Time to tip it off.
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North Carolina players are stretching on the floor in preparation to play familiar foe Syracuse of the ACC. The Tar Heels are favored by 9.5 points even though both earlier season wins over Syracuse were fairly close.

Of course Villanova was only a two-point favorite over Oklahoma and the Wildcats absolutely blew the Sooners out 95-51 in a game in which they shot 71 percent for the game. The winner of UNC-Syracuse will face Villanova Monday night. Until tonight, conventional wisdom was that Carolina was the Final Four favorite, and if there were going to be a blow out tonight, it would be Carolina over Syracuse. Should the Tar Heels get by Syracuse, they might well be the underdog after the Wildcats’ performance earlier tonight.

But all it will take is for a player or two to get into foul trouble for the Tar Heels and the Heels to shoot poorly over Syracuse’s zone.

From the Associated Press:

Syracuse’s zone is far from passive, but the Orange wait for the ball to move to an area and then they react with the sideline-to-sideline back line. There’s another advantage to playing a zone defense.

“You tend to get fewer guys into big foul trouble with zone,” Boeheim said. “In man-to-man, there’s a lot of situations where teams are going to be isolated, driving. If you get a guy with two or three (fouls), they’re going to try to isolate and drive that guy.

“You can’t really do that against a zone, so we can protect guys better. Foul trouble is less of an issue for us, although it can be. But I think the number of players you use in tournament play goes down for everybody,” he said. “We feel that we could bring another guy or two off the bench if we had to. But if we don’t have to, we won’t.”

On Jan. 9, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s first game back after a nine-game NCAA suspension over infractions, the Tar Heels prevailed 84-73 with Isaiah Hicks scoring 19 of his career-high 21 points in the second half. North Carolina scored 51 points and shot 64.3 percent from the field in the half. Trevor Cooney led the Orange with 27 points.

The game at Chapel Hill on Feb. 29 wasn’t settled until the final 2 minutes when Hicks and Brice Johnson came up with big baskets for North Carolina. Johnson had 14 points and 10 rebounds. Michael Gbinije had 17 points for the Orange, who had a chance to tie the game in the final 15 seconds.

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