For the second time this season, Syracuse marched into the heart of the Research Triangle and hung with one of the best college basketball teams in the country. But unlike that January night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Orange fell short Tuesday.
No. 5 North Carolina (23-5, 13-2 ACC) solidified its status as perhaps the nation’s hottest team en route to its fourth straight win. But Syracuse (18-10, 9-6) made it about as difficult as possible in a 93-85 final.
Offensively, Jim Boeheim couldn’t have written a much better script out of the gate. The Orange knocked down six of their first seven shots, and Elijah Hughes brought his flame-throwing air guitar to the Dean Dome: the swingman drained five (yes, FIVE) treys in the first half alone. SU finished the opening stanza a smoldering 18-32 (56 percent) from the floor and took a 46-43 lead to the locker room.
After Carolina caught fire and busted open a tie game with a 9-0 run, the Orange sprung off the mat and traded punches with one of the most talented offensive teams in the nation for the majority of the second half. Jim Boeheim has boiled it down for us several times throughout the season, and it’s worth remembering: most games come down to whether or not you make shots. A few bullseyes in a row stretch the defense, open up driving lanes, and invigorate your defense.
Jim Boeheim’s bunch produced their highest scoring output since that win over Duke, but it wasn’t enough against a Tar Heels team that leads the ACC and ranks third in the nation in raw scoring offense (87.1 points per game). The ‘Cuse fell victim to a superstar freshman for the second game in a row: Coby White led all scorers with an eye-popping 32 points on just 14 shots — six treys and a perfect 10-for-10 from the stripe help — three days after the Blue Devils’ RJ Barrett hung 30 points, five boards, and seven assists on the Orange at the Dome.
“I just came in with confidence,” White, who shot 7-for-24 from the field over his previous two games, said after going 9-for-14 against Syracuse. “After getting my first one in, I felt pretty good. I was just trying to find my rhythm and get my confidence back.”
Once again, North Carolina (which leads the country in rebounds per game at 42.8) terrorized Syracuse on the glass. It marked the sixth meeting in a row in which the Tar Heels outrebounded the Orange, but this was rock-bottom: UNC nearly doubled up SU on the glass, 46-25.
“They’re just big, you know?” Syracuse forward Marek Dolezaj said. “I don’t know what to tell you. And they put four guys on the boards, with just one guy going back.” Dolezaj added that long rebounds helped the Tar Heels pile up so many offensive boards, allowing guards to gobble up missed shots.
“We are not trying to box out,” Dolezaj said about rebounding from the 2-3 zone. “We are just trying to get the ball.”
UNC senior Kenny Williams echoed that reality: “Against a zone, it’s easier to get offensive rebounds because they don’t know who they are going to box out from play to play. That’s really it. We knew they played a zone and we’d be able to get more boards. We were able to get more possessions and beat them up on the boards a little bit.”
The Tar Heels also beat the Orange up at the line. North Carolina outscored Syracuse by 21 points at the charity stripe, setting season highs in free throws made (34), free throws attempted (37), and free-throw accuracy (91.9 percent). Boeheim’s group could blame the officials for only sending them to the line 23 times, but can’t blame anyone but themselves for missing 10 of those. Still, the head coach was within reason to say this postgame:
In the end, it was an offensive moral victory mired by brutal rebounding and questionable officiating. A win Tuesday likely would have sealed an NCAA Tournament bid, but when you strip away the disappointment of an apparent missed opportunity, you’re left with this reality: Syracuse lost to a top-five team by single-digits on the road. If you hear that scenario before the game, you take it.