The North Carolina Tar Heels earned their place in the national championship game with an 83-66 victory over Syracuse on Saturday. The Tar Heels wore down a pesky Orange team at NRG Stadium in Houston and earned their place against the Villanova Wildcats.
North Carolina’s tall and strong front line made up for off-target long-range shooting. While the Tar Heels shot only four of 17 from three-point range, they were 35 for 65 overall, many on layups, dunks and put-back.
Carolina’s guard tandem of Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige repeatedly penetrated the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone defense and either hit short shots or passed to teammates at or near the basket. Berry scored eight points, but dished out eight assists while Paige scored 13 points.
The North Carolina defense clearly came to play. The starting front line of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson outscored their Syracuse counterparts 47-19. Michael Gbinijie, the Orange’s senior star forward, was held to 12 points, making just five of 18 shots.
“The last four weeks we have been much, much better defensively,” said North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. “We had a brain lapse there for about three minutes in the second half, but other than that I thought we were really good defensively against a team that’s hard to guard.”
The teams were tied at 18 when Meeks scored from close range to give UNC the lead and start a 9-0 run. After a Syracuse timeout, little changed as the Tar Heels took a 39-28 lead into the halftime locker room.
The lead remained in double digits, eventually reaching 57-40 with 12:29 left. According to Williams, his team’s “brain cramp” then occurred.
The Orange went on a 10-0 run, capped by a Malachi Richardson three-pointer, cutting the lead to 57-50 with 9:51 remaining. The Tar Heels regained their mojo and quickly built the lead back to 67-53 on a Meeks tip in with 7:25 left.
Syracuse never seriously threatened again.
Johnson and Jackson led North Carolina with 16 points each, while Meeks had 15. Trevor Cooney led the Orange with 22 points, and Richardson had 17.
The Tar Heels will be gunning for their sixth national championship on Monday. Only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (8) have more.
Villanova seeks their second title. They pulled one of the biggest upsets in finals history with their 66-64 win over Georgetown in 1985.
Those in attendance and the millions watching on television hope the game will be more exciting than Saturday’s semifinals. It should be.
Both Villanova and North Carolina are playing at the top of their game. It should provide good television.