HOUSTON — Syracuse did its best to fashion a third straight comeback shocker when it cut a 17-point North Carolina lead down to seven points with 9:48 to play in the national semifinals last night at NRG Stadium. But the powerful Tar Heels dispatched their ACC brothers just as easily as they have everyone else in what turned into an 83-66 blowout.
The Tar Heels (33-6) will face Villanova (34-5) in the championship game Monday night.
Carolina was too strong on the inside, where it got 47 combined points from forwards Brice Johnson (16 and nine rebounds), Justin Jackson (16) and Kennedy Meeks (15 and eight rebounds), and guard Marcus Paige added 13 points for the Heels, who shot 53.8 percent from the field. The Orange (23-14) were led by 22 points from Trevor Cooney and got 17 from Malachi Richardson and 12 from Michael Gbinije. They shot only 40.9 percent.
During the regular season, North Carolina swept two meetings against Syracuse, but both were one-possession games near the end, and the Orange figured familiarity and their 2-3 zone might derail a Tar Heels attack that had been a juggernaut in the NCAA Tournament, winning by an average of 16.0 points.
For the first 12 minutes, Syracuse played UNC to a standoff tied at 18. But starting with a three-point play by the 6-10 Meeks, the Tar Heels ran off nine straight points to move out to a 27-18 lead. When the Orange cut the deficit to six, the Heels responded with a 6-0 burst, including a jumper in the paint by Isaiah Hicks and ending with a Hicks dunk that gave Carolina a 39-27 lead before a free throw cut the margin by one at halftime.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim worried before the game about his team’s lack of productivity on offense, and his concern was well-placed as the Orange shot 35.5 percent from the field in the opening half and compounded those woes with 3-for-10 at the foul line.
Boeheim called Carolina the “best inside scoring team in the country,” and the Heels backed that up by carving up the Orange zone to build a 26-12 advantage in points in the paint. The only saving grace was that Carolina was 0-for-10 from three-point range in the first half.
Paige opened the second half by missing another three for Carolina, but it soon became apparent poor outside shooting was not going to be a factor on a night when the Tar Heels’ bigs were having their way in the paint. Cooney hit a three for Syracuse to cut the deficit to 39-31, but North Carolina responded with a 10-2 run, including four points from Jackson, to push its lead to 49-33.
The Orange really had no answer under the rim, especially for Johnson when he soared for offensive rebounds that he converted to second-chance points. On one play, Paige made a pretty touch pass to Meeks underneath for a dunk and a 55-39 lead.
Carolina’s lead reached a high of 17 points at 57-40 when Syracuse suddenly found a spark that fanned the comeback flames. Cooney began a 10-0 run with a three-pointer and a steal for a fast-break dunk, and Richardson, the hero of the Orange comeback against Virginia, followed up with a layup and three-pointer. Suddenly, the deficit was down to 57-50 with 9:48 left.
The Tar Heels responded with a 10-3 push that included their first threes of the game from Paige and Theo Pinson for a 67-53 cushion. The Orange never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.