HOUSTON — When you’re as good as North Carolina, you don’t need to make many three-pointers to beat a zone defense. For the Tar Heels in Saturday’s national semifinals, the exact number was two.
Though timely threes by Marcus Paige and Theo Pinson on consecutive possessions inside the 10-minute mark stalled any chance of a Syracuse comeback, North Carolina is headed to an NCAA championship game clash with Villanova because of its shifty point guard who can make magic in tight quarters its bevy of tall people who can hit 15-footers and a defense that might be its best ever under Roy Williams.
And now, after beating surprising No. 10 seed Syracuse 83-66 at NRG Stadium, Williams will have a chance Monday to win his third national title and the school’s sixth overall.
Though they missed their first 13 from three-point range, the Tar Heels only seemed like they might be in trouble for a brief moment in the second half. Their 16-point lead had been cut to 57-50 with a little less than 10 minutes remaining after a five-point burst by freshman Malachi Richardson, bringing back memories of Syracuse’s shocking comebacks over Gonzaga and Virginia to reach the Final Four. But when they needed it most, the Tar Heels started hitting, quickly pushing the lead back to 65-53. That complemented a performance in which North Carolina scored 50 points in the paint, shot 54% overall and outscored the Orange 12-4 on the fast break.
In the end, this was the Tar Heels’ most commanding victory over Syracuse, which took them to the wire twice during the Atlantic Coast Conference season. And it sets up what should be a terrific final, as both teams appear to be at the peak of their powers. North Carolina has barely been tested on its way to the final, winning five games by an average of 16.2 points. It seemed like the game might be closer than that early as Syracuse got the pace it wanted for the first 10 minutes.
But whatever opportunity that should have given the Orange never materialized as leading scorer Michael Gbinije struggled badly, the shot selection deteriorated against North Carolina’s tough interior defense and the Tar Heels eventually worked the ball into the middle for easier looks. Even with senior Brice Johnson on the bench for the final nine minutes of the half, North Carolina used a 9-0 run to create some separation and finally got the game going at a faster tempo. Though the Tar Heels went 0-for-10 from the 3-point line in the first half, they made 17-for-25 inside the arc and went to halftime with a 39-28 lead.
Last week in Chicago, Boeheim said the Orange weren’t good enough to overcome a bad game by Gbinije, who averages 17.6 points. That looked prophetic, as Gbinije went 5-for-18 and Syracuse’s offense never got in a rhythm as a result.
North Carolina was not built to be reliant on one player and got a balanced effort with four players in double-figures, led by Johnson’s 16 points and nine rebounds.