The Tar Heels advanced to the national title game with an 83-66 win over ACC rival Syracuse. Here is how they did.
Joel Berry was very good
UNC had four players in double figures and did much of its damage in the post but Joel Berry's play was the straw that stirred the Tar Heel drink. Berry's stat line was two points short of a double-double and three rebounds short of a triple double. The sophomore guard recorded 8 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds, just the second time all season he has recorded double digit assists.
However when UNC's offense struggled early and the Tar Heels were far too willing to take threes which weren't close to falling, Berry stepped up to take control of the offense. In short he did what Tar Heel point guards in the Final Four in the past have done, ran the offense Carolina style. During the key first half stretch that saw UNC take early control of the game, Berry kicked it off with a basket to put UNC up 18-16. Berry went on to dish three assists, a steal and another made shot to send UNC to the locker room up 11.
In the second half it was more of the same with Berry assisting on baskets and at one point rebounding his own miss for a putback to push the Tar Heel lead to 17. With Berry on the bench, the Orange reeled off 10 straight points to cut the lead to seven. Roy Williams called timeout and Berry returned. His next two assists were on made threes from Marcus Paige and Theo Pinson to restore the Tar Heel lead 12.
Brice Johnson might be UNC's best player but Joel Berry continues to show he might be the Tar Heels' most important one, just like many Carolina point guards before him.
UNC's big men continue to dominate
Brice Johnson 16 points, nine rebounds
Kennedy Meeks 15 points, eight rebounds
Isaiah Hicks, 6 points, four rebounds
Joel James, 4 points, three rebuonds
41 of UNC's 83 points came from the four post players. At this point, Brice Johnson's productivity is expected and Isaiah Hicks coming off the bench to bolster the offense is like clockwork. Kennedy Meeks has been a mystery for most of the season raising the possibility he wasn't completely healthy or had simply hit his ceiling as a player. Joel James continued to draw groans from UNC fans when he entered the game.
Against Syracuse, UNC got the best from all four players. The remarkable part of that is how much Meeks, James and Hicks first half play effectively compensated for Johnson being on the bench with two fouls. Johnson's absence should have been a golden opportunity for the Orange to keep the game close or maybe build a lead. Instead it was James hitting two jumpers in the soft spots of the zone. It was Hicks working on the glass and Meeks kicking off a key 7-0 run with a three point play.
By the time Johnson returned in the second half, UNC had an 11 point lead. His eight second half points served to build on that. Once again UNC's depth provided the necessary catalyst to turn the game in the Tar Heels' favor.
Second Half Paige
During his sophomore season, Paige had the penchant for second half production leading to the Second Half Paige moniker. With all that has happened in the seasons since with his injuries in 2015 and shooting slump this season, Second Half Paige is but a distant memory, that is until tonight. When UNC needed to stem a Syracuse run, it was Paige who stepped up.
After UNC ran the lead to 17 points, Syracuse put together a 10-0 run to cut the lead to single digits for the first time since late in the first half. Malachai Richardson's three was the big shot and momentum felt as though it had turned orange. With murmurs of the Syracuse rally versus Virginia beginning to rise, UNC needed a big shot to stop the bleeding.
Enter Marcus Paige.
The senior guard drilled a three to answer the Richardson shot and push the lead back to ten. Brice Johnson followed with a dunk for a quick five point burst. UNC's run would reach 10-3 doubling the lead back to 14 with 7:25 left effectively squashing whatever hope the Orange had left. Just to be sure, Paige hit another with 5:32 left to keep UNC's lead in double digits serving as the proverbial dagger to Syracuse's season.
While UNC may have been too trigger happy on threes in the first half, the perimeter shooting over the final ten minutes of the game was timely and as it has been for most of the season, just enough.