Was it tougher than it needed to be? Maybe but all the same UNC pulled out a tough win when everything was going as well as it could. Here is what we learned.
Finding a way to win
Okay, okay. You could argue that UNC shouldn't have been in that position in the first place but closing out a tough win when the offense was again troubled is a step in the right direction. UNC certainly tried its best to take control of the game but every time the Tar Heels managed to get the lead out to three or even four possessions Syracuse responded. Instead of wilting when the game got tight, UNC found a way to make plays and scored key baskets despite the Orange zone being much more difficult than it in early January.
The first pushback for UNC came after Syracuse had sliced the lead to 62-59 with 7:00 left in the game. Brice Johnson hit a jumper to push the lead back to five. On the other end, he grabbed a defensive rebound then hit a streaking Justin Jackson for a layup. Johnson then hit a pair of free throws to cap a 6-0 burst to put UNC back up seven. The Orange answered back with an 9-1 run to make it a one possession game again. This time it was Isaiah Hicks who made the basket to keep the game leaning in UNC's favor.
With the Tar Heels up three and Joel Berry missing UNC's eighth three of the half in as many attempts, Johnson pulled down a huge offensive rebound and got the putback for a five point advantage. Syracuse cut the lead to three but Joel Berry nailed two clutch free throws to grab the win. It should be noted that unlike the loss to Duke, UNC got contributions from the interior with the game in the balance whether it be feeding the post or grabbing an offensive rebound.
It wasn't pretty and it did require some breaks but all the same UNC outlasted a Syracuse team that would not quit and in doing so perhaps found some confidence in games of this nature.
Marcus Paige is what he is at this point
There is no magic elixir or a button to push. No one knows what has caused Paige's half season struggle to string together consistent shooting and at this stage it simply not something to fret over. Paige continues to show flashes of what he can do like a coast-to-coast layup and foul after grabbing a defensive rebound. For now they are just flashes with no real sign it will become more than that.
Of course Paige's shot not falling is part and parcel to UNC's inability to effectively finish teams off in a timely manner. UNC was 0-8 from three in the second half and finished 6-25. At key moments UNC attempted threes within the flow of the offense that could have either stemmed a Orange run or put more padding to the lead but they didn't go in. Getting those shots to fall would have made like easier at it would have when UNC lost to Duke,
Paige, for his part, continues to look for ways to help the team even when he seemingly can't buy a bucket. In two games versus Syracuse, Paige had just three made field goals but 16 total assists. Tonight he had eight assists versus just one turnover as he made an effort to facilitate the offense more against the Orange zone.
At some point Paige might find his scoring stroke again but absent that, if he can assist with the offensive execution, that might be enough.
Going to Durham with the ACC Regular Season title on the line
Simple proposition: Win at Duke and UNC is the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament, positioned very well for an NCAA Tournament #1 seed and a mortal lock for the Raleigh pod in the First and Second Rounds. There are actually other factors that could clinch top seed in the ACC Tournament before UNC gets on the bus for Durham. A loss this week by both Virginia and Miami would clinch the top seed for UNC. Since the Cavaliers play at Clemson on Tuesday and Miami heads to Notre Dame on Wednesday, it is possible those necessary losses occur prior to UNC-Duke on Saturday night.
Then again, UNC should simply take care of business outright and not hope to back into the top spot with a 13-5 record. UNC is also looking for revenge after the loss to Duke two weeks ago and seeking this senior group's first win ever at Cameron Indoor Stadium. A win to close out the regular season gives UNC necessary momentum and gives this group something they have coveted for four years, a championship.