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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things Learned

After putting the squeeze on the Orange, the Heels are looking like they are ready to take on all challengers.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For anybody that is a fan of twists and turns, the Tar Heels’ win against Syracuse last night more than delivered. Jim Boeheim’s team was on a mission from the opening tip and kept the Heels in check for the entire first half. However, Coby White’s heroics and the defense stepping up in the second half helped Carolina come away with a 93-85 victory. The Heels are now 8-1 against Syracuse since they joined the ACC, and have won 11 of their last 12 ACC games, which is the best stretch in conference play since the 2013-14 season.

Following last night’s events, Carolina is now part of a two-way tie in the ACC thanks to Duke’s loss in Blacksburg. With three games left, the Heels look like a team that just might have a decent chance to win a share of the regular season championship. There’s still a lot of work to do, but this team mostly looks like a team that is ready to kick off the month of March.

With that said, let’s take a look at a few lessons that we learned from last night’s victory.

UNC is a really good rebounding team...again

Going into this season, the hopes of how Carolina would be able to crash the boards effectively ran through Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Luke Maye. However, once Sterling Manley was declared unable to play for an undetermined amount of time, it was hard to foresee a future in which the Heels would be as good at grabbing rebounds as they have been in previous years. Well, in the past couple of weeks rebounding has been far from an issue.

Last night the Tar Heels dominated the rebound battle against the Orange 46-25. Luke Maye was the primary contributor, finishing the game with 12 boards to go along with nine points and a career-high six assists. Nassir Little and Kenny Williams chipped in, pulling down six rebounds apiece, and Cameron Johnson ended the night with seven of his own.

The most surprising thing about how the Heels have managed to get the job done without Sterling Manley is the amount of contributors that have helped grab rebounds. Aside from the names listed above, Coby White has pulled down 5+ rebounds in seven games this year.

The great job that the team did cleaning the boards against Florida State was one of the highlights of the year, as the Seminoles’ length and athleticism was trumped by Carolina’s ability to turn a negative attribute of the team into a positive. Bear in mind that as of right now, the tallest active player on the roster is Brandon Huffman at 6’10, but he has been playing very few minutes in Manley’s absence. If the team can keep this up, it will pay off greatly in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

This team continues to win through adversity

Syracuse began the game last night looking like they were going to run the Tar Heels out of the gym. After jumping out to a 15-6 in the opening four minutes, Carolina managed to close the gap only to have the Orange continue to pull away repeatedly. Elijah Hughes had a half that UNC fans are in constant fear of with any team that comes into the Smith Center: he got hot from deep, and scored 15 points in the first half alone.

Thankfully, UNC’s fortunes would change, and Hughes didn’t score for the rest of the game. Tyus Battle stepped up and gave Coby White and Seventh Woods fits, but ultimately White was just better. Like, a lot better. He finished with a career-high 34 points, and topped it off with four rebounds and three assists. Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little also joined him in scoring in double figures, with Little doing an excellent job of being aggressive and getting to the foul line. The Heels would find a way to lead by as many as 10 points in the second half, and they managed to keep the Orange from making a good enough run to steal a win.

UNC’s propensity to find various ways to win this season is something that makes this team way more dangerous than many people expected them to be. Perhaps the most impressive part about their run through ACC play is how much of it has happened without the help of Sterling Manley and Leaky Black. This isn’t even to mention the fact that Kenny Williams is still having a lot of trouble with his shot, and so his output has been significantly less than it was last year scoring-wise.

Following last night’s win, it’s become clear that this team can never be counted out in any given situation until the final buzzer. Losses like the ones against Texas, Michigan, and Kentucky probably don’t happen if those games were played against this version of the team (Texas especially), and that’s a good sign for things to come.

Roy Williams has his team playing well at the right time

During Jim Boeheim’s post-game press conference, he had some high praise for Roy Williams’ team. Here’s what the Hall of Fame coach had to say about the Tar Heels:

Given the fact that Syracuse has played Duke twice this year, that is very high praise coming from Boeheim. The praise is far from unwarranted — Carolina has won 11 of its last 12 ACC games, which is their best stretch in conference play since the 2013-14 season. The Heels also have a chance to go undefeated in ACC road games if they can find a way to beat Clemson and Boston College. Considering the fact that this team caught a lot of heat following their loss to Louisville, it has to be pointed out just how outstanding they have been in ACC play.

The amazing thing about this team is that they still aren’t as good as they could be — last night’s win was the third game in a row in which Carolina shot under 40% from three. Now that they’ve figured out how to win without making shots from the perimeter, this team will be downright scary when three-pointers start falling at the rate they have been falling for most of the season.

In the sport of basketball, the most dangerous teams are ones that are multi-dimensional. More specifically, a team that knows how to adapt to various situations on the court is one that no team wants to face in the NCAA tournament. This team has been through the fire this year, and that fire has created a team that absolutely could make it to the national championship game given the upward trajectory that they are on. That is, of course, if they can keep improving in the coming weeks and not fall into old bad habits. We will see very soon which team will show up to the big dance.