By R.L. Bynum
The good news for North Carolina is that Armando Bacot rebounded from a rough stretch to again play like the Tar Heels’ leading scorer.
Other than a huge rebounding edge, it was hard to find many more positives as Carolina was sloppy on offense and didn’t seem focused until it was too late in a 72–70 loss at Syracuse (14–8, 8–7 ACC) on Monday night.
“It’s frustrating, there’s no question,” Coach Roy Williams said of UNC’s 20 turnovers. “We talk about turnovers in practice. I haven’t gotten them to understand how important possession of the ball is. I’ve got to do a better job of getting them to understand borderline plays can’t be made.”
With 18 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, Bacot doubled his scoring total from the previous three games combined, but most of his teammates struggled to generate much offense.
“I just feel like, as a whole, we just expect the game to be handed to us and we just lost,” Bacot said. “Obviously, Syracuse, they have a great zone. But to go from playing one of our best games of the year beating Florida State to losing is tough.”
The crisp passing and good perimeter shooting that usually are needed to solve the Orange’s zone defense didn’t make it to upstate New York. A 53–33 rebounding edge only goes so far when you shoot 38.2% from the floor and 20% from 3-point range.
“I think when you’re playing against their zone, you’ve got to get the ball inside and attack the inside around the paint area and also make a couple of shots,” Williams said. “I thought we were attacking the lane quite a bit better than we did late in the game. We just did not attack it at all late in the game and attack it successfully. We had too many loose balls that they ended up getting.”
Carolina (15–9, 9–6) made only 2 of its first 18 3-point attempts. The Tar Heels got late 3s from Caleb Love and RJ Davis to make it a game with a late 12–3 but they couldn’t finish the rally.
“We just have to stay in it and not get in our heads on missed shots,” Love said. “Just the whole game was kind of dry. We came out slow and weren’t ready to play.”
Those 3s from Love and Davis and Love’s steal and layup cut Syracuse’s lead to 70–68 with 18 seconds left. After Joe Girard split two free throws with 13 seconds left and Love missed two free throws with 11 seconds left, Girard put the game away on a free throw with 10 seconds left.
Williams’ plan for Love, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and three assists, to make the first and miss the second rimmed out on the first try as did the Tar Heels’ chances.
“The other team has to help you and we missed some opportunities,” Williams said of his team’s failed rally.
If Kerwin Walton had even a marginal shooting game, UNC probably would have won. But he was 1 of 10 from the floor and missed all seven 3-point attempts. After making 5 of 10 3-point attempts against Louisville, Walton is 5 for 24 in the three games since then.
Garrison Brooks scored 11 points for UNC.
Buddy Boeheim had 26 points and six 3-pointers for Syracuse with Quincy Guerrier adding 18 points and two 3-pointers.
“He moves without the ball a lot,” Love said of Boeheim. “We help so much that we lose him sometimes.”
UNC jumped out to an 11–2 start with baskets from five players, but Syracuse quickly cut it to 12–10. Leaky Black punctuated a 7–0 Tar Heels run with a steal and layup to put them up 20–13 with 8:17 left in the first half.
Boeheim’s two 3-pointers sparked a 14–2 Syracuse run to take a 34–28 halftime lead.
Love finally sank UNC’s first 3-pointer as Carolina scored the first eight points of the second half to take a brief lead. But a 15–2 Syracuse run pushed the Orange up 50–38 on a Guerrier bucket with 12:09 remaining.UNC chipped the lead down to 50–45 on a 7–0 run, including a drive and two free throws from Davis. But a 7–2 Syracuse run pushed the lead back to 57–47 on a Jesse Edwards dunk with 8:12 left.
Carolina finishes the regular season with a senior night game against Duke (11–9, 9–7) at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) going for a season sweep. The Blue Devils play at Georgia Tech at 8 p.m. Tuesday night (ACC Network).
Syracuse 72, Carolina 70
Pool photos by Mark Konezny of USA Today