In a game that ebbed and flowed much like the loss to Duke, UNC held off Syracuse late for a 75-70 win on Senior Night.
For much of the first half it was a game of runs. UNC bolted out to an early 7-2 lead and enjoyed leads of six three times and one as much as seven. In every case, the Orange answered back. UNC's half was defined by taking what the Syracuse zone was giving which was plentiful looks from three. For the half UNC had 34 field goal attempts with 50% of those coming from beyond the arc. That number was well above UNC's season 3PA% of 26.4.
The high-low game that worked so well at Syracuse was non-existent. Two early fouls for both Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks played a part in that as the two barely played a minute together during the first half. Outside of the three point shooting Justin Jackson did find some room on the baseline to operate for seven points with Joel Berry scoring eight and drawing three offensive fouls as the Tar Heels went to the locker room up 38-34.
After a missed three from Marcus Paige to open the half, UNC stopped settling for jumpers and started working the ball into the paint. Back-to-back baskets from Isaiah Hicks, a three point player from Paige and a Joel Berry layup keyed a 9-0 run to push the Tar Heel lead to 13. After Johnson and Hicks were each whistled for their third fouls the offense stalled and Syracuse cut the lead to 50-43. Kennedy Meeks scored six of UNC's next eight points to push the lead back to 11 with 9:47 left.
Again, UNC had trouble with prosperity and Syracuse took advantage to chip away at the lead using a 10-2 run to cut the Tar Heel advantage to just three with seven minutes left. The Tar Heels responded with six straight points to reestablish nominal control of the game. Jonson made a turnaround jumper in the paint on one end and at the other snared a defensive rebound before firing a perfect pass to a streaking Jackson for a layup to run the lead to nine.
Syracuse simply would not die or UNC refused to finish the job, take your pick. Syracuse embarked on 9-2 run to cut the lead to just one at 69-68 on a step back three from Michael Gbinije. Isaiah Hicks' basket on the other end put UNC up three again followed by a much needed stop. Berry's subsequent three attempt was off the mark but Johnson grabbed the offensive rebound to make it a five point game.
UNC looked to be in great shape after getting another defensive stop but a Orange steal and dunk from Malachai Richarson cut the lead to three with 43 seconds left. UNC failed to cinch the game on the next possession but Gbinije obliged UNC with a miss on a drive to the basket. Joel Berry's two free throws with 6.6 second left sealed the game.
The Tar Heels had balanced scoring with five players in double figures led by Johnson's 14 points and 10 rebounds. Berry had 13 points and six rebounds, Meeks, Hicks and Jackson each had 10 apiece. Paige struggled again to shoot the ball going 2-10 but dished out eight assists vs one turnover.
With the win UNC clinches a double-bye in the ACC Tournament and can secure a regular season title on Saturday with a win at Duke