North Carolina beats Syracuse for third time this season to advance to national title game

(Chris Steppig/NCAA Photos via AP, Pool)
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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.

The Syracuse comeback wins over Gonzaga and Virginia will certainly be memorable. For the Orange to make the Final Four a year after their self-imposed postseason ban shows how determined this team was to put that in the past.

“Obviously it’s tough right now. But I’m still proud of these guys,” Cooney said. “I mean, coming into the tournament, we weren’t even supposed to be in there, what you guys said. We just kept battling, fighting. We were down in so many games throughout this tournament.

“You have to give credit to North Carolina, they’re a hell of a team. They played really well today. For us to beat them, we would have had to have played perfect and we just didn’t today.”

These two teams matched up twice during ACC play with the Tar Heels sweeping the season series. Although it’s always difficult to beat any team three times in one season, North Carolina was never seriously threatened in the second half.

Much like Syracuse, the looming threat of NCAA sanctions is hanging over the North Carolina program, but the Tar Heels have been able to come out focused during the NCAA tournament and they’re playing some of their best ball of the season. Although the hot perimeter shooting didn’t continue for North Carolina on Saturday, they still shot 53 percent from the field on offense and they really seem to be clicking at the right time.

“It took a lot of ups-and-downs but we’re finally here,” Berry said. “We’re finally in the game we want to be in and we have to be ready to play.”

North Carolina now advances to face Villanova in Monday night’s championship game in Houston. With the Wildcats coming off of the largest victory in Final Four history over Oklahoma in the first national semifinal, it’ll be intriguing to see if Villanova continues their hot shooting in the title game. The Wildcats would appear to have a better feel for shooting in NRG Stadium after their blistering 71 percent shooting against Oklahoma, but North Carolina can also put up points with the best of them.

“Those guys are a very good team. They’re really hot right now,” Johnson said. “They held one of the best players in the country to little or nothing today. They all play together. They space the floor. We’ve just got to go out there and play.”

The win on Saturday gives North Carolina a chance to win their first national championship since 2009. Villanova and North Carolina also played during that 2009 Final Four, in the national semifinals, as the Tar Heels took home an 83-69 win.