By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina has rarely been in the zone offensively this season, but leave it to the classic Syracuse zone defense to bring that out a little for the Tar Heels.

With uncommon patience in the half-court offense, crisp perimeter passing and the ability to push the ball up court in transition, Carolina’s offense looked as good as it has all season in an 81–75 victory Tuesday night over Syracuse.  

There were bad stretches on offense for the Tar Heels but they overcame them and again made big shots at the end to put up a season-high point total. The good ball movement most of the game helped 18 of UNC’s 29 field goals be assisted.

Two inside buckets by Armando Bacot and a transition layup by Andrew Platek finally put away the Orange (7–3, 1–2 ACC) in the final 1:22 to give the Tar Heels (8–4, 3–2) their third consecutive victory.  

Bacot had 15 points and a game-high 12 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.

“We talked all season about finishing games with our brain and the heart and I think we did that,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “All five of our [ACC] games have come down the last 30 seconds.”

After three games coming off the bench, Garrison Brooks was back and brought plenty of aggressiveness to the starting lineup with 14 of his 16 points in the first half. He added 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season and 13th of his career.

“My teammates definitely helped me stay focused, be positive,” Brooks, who also had a team-high three steals, said of his tough stretch of games. “My energy wasn’t there in the first 12 games But tonight I drew a line and said I’m gonna play better and help my team.”

UNC collected 24 offensive rebounds, the most since pulling down 24 against Pittsburgh in 2017. More importantly, the Tar Heels rebounded 53% of their misses.

The major first-half problem was Buddy Boeheim, who scored 18 in the first half, making plenty of shots under pressure. Leaky Black changed that in the second half. He blocked a Boeheim shot early and held him scoreless on 0 of 3 shooting in the second half.

Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim (35) scored 18 points in the first half but Leaky Black (1) kept him scoreless in the second half by denying him the ball.

“I just tried to deny him the ball more,” said Black, who had a season-high seven assists, including one that led to one of those late Bacot layups. “In the first half, I felt like we were making him work for the shots and it was just rhythm shots for him. So just deny him the ball and it makes life a lot easier.”

The turnover troubles weren’t as bad for the Tar Heels with only 11. It may be a coincidence, but that fact comes in a game where RJ Davis and Caleb Love didn’t play together on the court much if at all. Davis had 12 points, one assist and no turnovers and passed well around the Orange zone. Love had seven points, including one 3-pointer, with on assist against two turnovers.

The momentum swung wildly with the teams trading long runs.

After a 14–4 UNC run gave the Tar Heels a 30–22 lead with 6:02 left in the first half, Syracuse went on a 14–4 run to end the half and tie the game at 40 at halftime. After the Tar Heels started the second half with a 9–0 run, Syracuse put together a 13–0 run.

A 13–0 run sparked by seven points from Davis, who finished with 12 points, gave UNC a 62–56 lead with 8:13 left. But an 8–0 Syracuse run capped by a pair of Quincy Guerrier free throws gave the Orange a 68–67 edge with 3:21 remaining.

Pairs of free throws by Sharpe and Brooks gave UNC a 71–68 lead with 2:04 left. After a step-back jumper by Syracuse’s Alan Griffin, two Bacot layups (the second after he couldn’t convert the three-point play) gave UNC a 75–70 lead with 58 seconds left  Platek then added a transition layup with 42 seconds left.

The Tar Heels try to extend their winning streak at noon Saturday at Florida State (ESPN). The Seminoles (5–2, 1-1) play host to N.C. State at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (ACC Network).

North Carolina 81, Syracuse 75

Pool photos by Robert Willett

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