RIP UNC Toughness Questions
UNC overcomes one of Marcus Paige's worst games since probably his freshman season to grab a huge road win over Syracuse 84-73. For the first time in the Roy Williams era, UNC is 4-0 in ACC play.
This game was fraught with bad mojo for the Tar Heels. Facing a zone defense and three point shooting team on the road with Orange coach Jim Boeheim returning from suspension and Syracuse trying to avoid an 0-4 ACC start. A loss would not be surprising, especially given the volatility of college basketball this season and in the ACC. Earlier in the day Virginia had fallen for a second straight game, this time to Georgia Tech.
For much of the first half UNC and Syracuse played nip and tuck, if not uninspired offensive basketball. Neither team was playing to their strength with the Tar Heels giving up too many rebounds and the Orange not really hitting perimeter shots. There was also quite a bit of settling offensively for the Tar Heels with too many three point attempts that didn't go down. Eventually UNC would start attacking the zone with penetration and a steady diet of feeds to Tar Heel big men. Kennedy Meeks, in his first action since December 19th, scored 8 points while Joel James had six points. That allowed the Tar Heels to extend a 27-20 lead with 5:07 left.
The threes started falling for the Orange. Five straight points from Trevor Cooney and a three from Malachai Richardson put the Orange ahead by one. The teams traded baskets to close the half with Johnson's steal and layup to tying the game at 33-33 heading to the locker room.
Paige opened the second half with his first points of the game, a three to give UNC an early lead. Justin Jackson's baseline runner made it a 42-36 lead and UNC looked again to be taking control of the game. The Orange stormed back and eventually pulled ahead 56-50 on a Cooney three pointer.
Down six, UNC wasted little time responding reeling off seven straight points to reclaim the lead. Hicks dunks and free throw followed by a pair of Jackson layups quickly erased the Orange advantage. UNC led 59-58 with 6:10 left when Joel Berry hit yet another big second half three pointer to put the Heels up two possessions. UNC relied heavily on Johnson in the high post and the senior big man teamed up with Hicks to get open shots along the baseline. With UNC up 66-64, Johnson found Hicks behind the zone on back-to-back possessions to push the lead to five points putting the Tar Heels on the way to closing out an 11 point win on the road. UNC shot 64% in the second half with 16 assists on 18 made baskets. UNC also went 17-20 at the free throw line with Hicks going 11-13.
Isaiah Hicks led the Tar Heels with 21 points and 8 rebounds playing for most of the second half with three fouls. Brice Johnson followed up his 39 points and 23 rebounds at FSU with 16 points, a career high eight assists, four rebounds and two steals. Justin Jackson, who per Roy Williams afterwards, had a fever earlier in the day, had 16 points which almost no realized he had unless they looked at the box score. Joel Berry also had 14 points including a big three to really seize control of the game as the game hit the home stretch. While Marcus Paige did not have a great scoring night and got a layup blocked from behind he did dish out 8 assists and grab six rebounds.
UNC survives a two game road trip and is 4-0 in ACC play. With three of four at home coming up and a road trip to Virginia Tech in the mix, the Tar Heels have a shot at getting to 8-0 before the real tough stretch of the season hits.