After watching Villanova lay waste to Oklahoma in the first game, the opening half of the second national semifinal was bit of a shock comparison. Both teams looked to be the victims of big stage jitters. UNC in particular didn't seem necessarily bothered by the Orange zone defense but was out of sorts offensively anyway. As the first half unfolded, both offenses were stagnant. UNC settled for three pointers and was clearly hindered by the shooting background since none of the ten first half attempts were anywhere close.
Despite UNC's rought play, Syracuse wasn't much better and with 8:14 remaining, the game was tied at 18-18. At this point, UNC tightened the defense which appeared to lead to better overall offensive execution. With Brice Johnson saddled with two fouls and sitting for the final nine minutes of the half, UNC relied on Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James on the interior. Those three delivered. Meeks' three point played kicked off 7-0 run turning a tied game into a 25-18 Tar Heel lead. James, who played a longer first half stint thanks to Johnson's foul issues was 2-2 for four points and Hicks scored six but ended the half with three fouls. Once UNC moved away from shooting threes the offense found a groove to post an 11 point halftime lead despite Johnson not playing much of the half.
UNC wasted little time in extending the lead in the second half and using the defense to do it. A string of Orange turnovers gave the Tar Heels some easy chances in transition. Meanwhile Justin Jackson scored a quick six points to help fuel the offense and the Tar Heels started to really eviscerate the Orange zone. The Tar Heel lead would climb to as high as 17 on a Berry layup with 12:29 left.
Syracuse then reminded everyone this was the team that rallied from a similar deficit against Virginia in the regional final. UNC's got sloppy on the offensive end and the Orange took advantage with a 10-0 run to cut the lead to seven. Malachai Richardson's long three with 9:51 left got the lead to single digits. As UNC has done during the NCAA Tournament there was a response. Paige answered Richardson with UNC's first made three of the game. An angry Brice Johnson dunk then a rare Theo Pinson three keyed a 10-3 response to the Orange's bid to get back into the game.
From there UNC continued to answer Syracuse. When the Orange attempted to press as it had against Virginia, UNC got transition baskets. Syracuse's Trevor Cooney single handily tried to keep the Orange in the game, but Paige third three pointer of the half with 2:55 left followed by Tyler Lydon missed on the other end and a Meeks layup put the Heels up 15 with two minutes left.
Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson led UNC with 16 points. Johnson finished one rebound of a double-double with nine. Kennedy Meeks had 15 points and eight rebounds, Marcus Paige had 13 points, 11 in the second half including a trio of threes. Joel Berry had eight points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
UNC will play Villanova for the national title on Monday night.