For the most part, not much has come easy for this Tar Heel team in ACC play. A blowout win at Clemson and a big second half to cruise to a win over Wake Forest have constituted the easiest three halves of basketball UNC has played during the league schedule. The rest of the games have been tough, grind it out affairs. For a team questioned earlier in the season for toughness the 7-1 ACC start has been a constant toughness test. From the heartbreak loss to Notre Dame to Marcus Paige heroics vs Louisville to surviving at rival NC State. Nothing has come easy. Even games against the lower half of the league like Virginia Tech and FSU have been difficult journeys.
It was no different with Syracuse which came in with not just a zone defense but one that is extremely active with a lot of length. Through the first half UNC struggled taking care of the ball against the Orange defense. UNC committed 13 first half turnovers, five of which belonged to J.P. Tokoto. When UNC was able to get shots up, the Tar Heels hit 48% and knocked down 5-of-9 from three. A big catalyst for that shooting was reserve guard Nate Britt.
Britt had struggled for much of ACC play but seemingly snapped out of his slump with improved play against FSU on Saturday. Britt took it to a different level in this game hitting a pair of threes in the first half, one of which was well behind the arc. Britt's play essentially kept the Heels within striking distance in a contest where every time UNC got close the Orange pushed the lead back out. The Orange's Trevor Cooney lit the Heels up in the first half hitting 6-12 shots and a trio of threes for 15 points. The turnover prone half ended in predictable fashion with the Heels turning the ball over on an inbounds pass at UNC's end of the floor and Syracuse getting a run out layup at the buzzer for a 40-35 lead.
For all but 90 seconds of halftime clock, the Heels were in the locker room. In the first two minutes it became clear what the halftime message was: Feed. Brice. Johnson. The junior forward scored UNC's first six points and the Heels went on an 8-2 run to take a one point lead. Once again the Orange pushed back to reclaim the lead at 47-43 then weather another Tar Heel flurry for a 56-50 edge with 13 minutes remaining.
The ensuing six minutes may very well have been UNC's best offensive stretch of the season. Marcus Paige hit two straight threes to tie the game at 56. As the contest became a back-and-forth affair, Kennedy Meeks scored six straight points followed by two more threes from Britt. The third and fourth threes gave Britt a career high and UNC the lead for good at 67-62.
UNC extended that lead to as much as six but a 1-6 stretch at the free throw line allowed the Orange to pull within two with 68-66. The back and forth battle continued with the Orange's Rakeem Christmas scoring at will in the post on Meeks and the Heels getting a balanced attack with baskets from Paige, Britt and Johnson to maintain the two point lead at 74-72.
It became readily apparent that the team which could string together stops first would likely win the game and UNC did that. Cooney, who had Tokoto hounding him for much of the second half was far less effective hitting just 4-14 shots after halftime and just 1-5 from three. His missed three at the 2:55 coming after Britt helped double Christmas followed by a pair of Johnson free throws put the Heels in control. Over the final four minutes UNC would hit 15-18 at the line overcoming that brief 1-6 slump to effectively put the game away. Johnson was 5-6 in that span and Paige was 6-6.
Paige had one of his best outings of the season scoring 22 points on 6-10 shooting and 4-7 from three. He dished out 8 assists, grabbed six rebounds, had four steals and did not commit a turnover on a night when UNC posted TO% of 26.0. Meeks recovered from a 2-7 first half to go 4-6 in the second to finish with 17 points. Johnson was 6-6 on the game including 5-5 in the second half for 17 points and 11 rebounds. However Britt was, in the words of Orange coach Jim Boeheim, "the difference maker." His 17 points surpasses the career high 13 he scored at Michigan State last season. For once UNC was on the other end of that "random player goes off" phenomenon that sometimes happens. Britt's three pointers gave the Heels a second perimeter scoring option on a night when UNC needed it's biggest weakness to actually be a strength. Paige and Britt's combined 8-12 shooting from beyond the arc was timely to say the least.
UNC has had its toughness questioned and there are times with the Tar Heels are a little slow out of the gate. In the second half UNC showed plenty of fight and also a high degree of offensive consistency against a defense that normally gives the Tar Heels fits. It was another sign this team is heading in the right direction as tests at Louisville then versus Virginia loom next weekend.