North Carolina beats Syracuse, will face Villanova in title game
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HOUSTON — This looked like an inside job all the way for North Carolina.
Then, out of nowhere, Marcus Paige figured out how to hit from 3-point land and the Tar Heels pulled away from Syracuse — and within one win of the program’s sixth national title.
Using layups, floaters and putbacks — and, finally, three very timely 3s from Paige — Carolina stifled another comeback by the Orange on the way to an 83-66 win in the Final Four on Saturday.
Syracuse trimmed a 17-point deficit to seven with just under 10 minutes left. At that point, the Tar Heels (33-6) were 0 for 11 from behind the 3-point line.
“I wanted somebody in a North Carolina uniform to make it,” coach Roy Williams said of his team’s first 3.
That someone turned out to be Paige.
He finished with 13 points and Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson led North Carolina (33-6) with 16 apiece, as the Tar Heels, the lone No. 1 seed in the Final Four, beat Jim Boeheim’s 10th-seeded Orange for the third time this season. The Heels will play Villanova for the title Monday. North Carolina opened as a 2-point favorite.
In the early game, ‘Nova made 11 of 18 shots from behind the 3-point line in a 95-51 crushing of Oklahoma, to debunk the theory that nobody could shoot in Houston’s cavernous stadium.
Then, the Tar Heels, ranked 284th in the country this season from long range, reversed that one-game trend. They bricked up 3 after 3, barely drawing iron on a few of their 10 misses in the first half. Paige opened the second with North Carolina’s 11th straight miss, and for the next 10 minutes, the Tar Heels basically ignored the 3-point line.
Only when Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson triggered the 10-0 Syracuse run to make the score 57-50 did Carolina start thinking long range again. Paige made three 3s and Theo Pinson hit another to help the Heels pull away and make them almost respectable from the 3-point line: 4 for 17 for the game.
“Marcus was hitting some big-time open shots,” said Johnson, his roommate and teammate. “If you’re going to leave Marcus Paige open, I’m quite sure he’s going to make a lot of those.”
Before Paige found his range, Carolina built its lead on the inside, with big-time help from an in-your-face defense that held Syracuse’s leading scorer Michael Gbinije to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting. The Orange only went 8 for 25 from 3-point range and shot 40.9 percent overall.
“We didn’t have to play perfect, but we had to shoot better tonight,” Boeheim said.
In all, North Carolina offered a reminder of the days before the 3-point shot was invented, when the way to really beat a zone — and Boeheim’s 2-3 is the best in the game — was to make blink-of-an-eye passes in and around the paint and crash the offensive glass to take advantage of a defense that doesn’t put bodies on bodies when the ball goes up.
That plan still works.
Early in the second half, Jackson made a jump pass from the corner to the lane, where Paige was waiting and batted the ball with an open hand over to Kennedy Meeks (15 points, eight rebounds), who dunked.
A bit later, Joel Berry got an easy offensive rebound and a layup to put the Tar Heels ahead by 17.
“Whether it was off a pass, a shot fake, faking a pass, I just try to get inside,” Berry said.
North Carolina finished with 16 second-chance points on 16 offensive boards. Points in the paint: Tar Heels 50, Orange 32.
“Their zone, it’s almost, on paper, a nightmare matchup for us because we don’t shoot it well from 3,” Paige said. “But we were able to get the ball inside, get it where we wanted to.”
Syracuse made it here after rallying from 16 down against Virginia last week. But there was no full-court press that could beat the Heels, and no meltdown awaiting from them either.
“They decided to press against a team that likes to run,” Johnson said. “You can’t speed us up the way they did Virginia.”
Cooney led the Orange (23-14), the first No. 10 seed to make it to the Final Four, with 22 points. Richardson had 17, but after his 3 trimmed the deficit to seven with 9:48 left, Syracuse couldn’t pull closer.
“I’m more proud of this team than … of any team I’ve coached,” Boeheim said. “This team battled through an awful lot of things.”
Namely, it was Boeheim’s nine-game suspension in the wake of NCAA troubles that made the early season a soap opera.
North Carolina is facing an NCAA investigation of its own, one that has taken a toll on Williams.
That can wait until after Monday, though, when Villanova will be the only thing on North Carolina’s mind.
“Enjoy the Dickens out of it until midnight,” Williams said, “and then worry about that other team.”