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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things Learned

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Carolina’s offense gets rolling while still shooting poorly.

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

Carolina beat Syracuse by more than one possession, but still made Tar Heel fans sweat until the last moment. It was a game of runs and frustration, but ultimately one that saw some of UNC’s players come good after a frustrating run of form.

Here are three things learned from a vital home win over the Orange.

Big men take over the game

Roy Williams has a sterling record against “Uncle Duke” lookalike Jim Boeheim since his return to Chapel Hill. This win raised his record against Syracuse to 10-3. Those wins are largely built on his ability to break down the 2-3 zone with interior passing and the primary break. While 11 fast break points are not vintage Carolina numbers, they’re a step in the right direction.

But take a look at the 42 points in the paint.

Starters Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot combined for 24 points down low (Garrison added 6 points from the FT line, Armando had 1 made free throw). Freshmen subs Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler added 8 more post points. All four Tar Heel bigs combined for 29 rebounds, 11 on the offensive glass. Syracuse as a team only mustered 31 rebounds total. Marek Dolezaj and Quincy Guerrier just didn’t have the beef to compete with Carolina’s bigs. Guerrier fouled out, and Dolezaj had three fouls and only 6 points.

Playing Syracuse requires patience. They’re tested on every facet of the zone. UNC shot a horrendous 5-for-24 from three-point range, so they weren’t going to win with the deep ball. Touches in the paint are crucial to unlocking this defense, especially when the ball moves quickly. Like this:

Kerwin Walton expands his game... to the mid-range

Last night would have been the perfect night for Kerwin Walton to unleash a three-point barrage against the Orange. Their zone offered up those looks on the wings. But now that ACC opponents have some film of Kerwin splashing threes with abandon, they were quick to close down on him.

Kerwin showed an aspect of his game that we haven’t seen yet: the mid-range game. His set-up was smooth and steady. Kerwin would pump fake to draw defenders in close, then dribble into the vacant space left behind. He was hot from inside the arc, going 3-for-4.

After splashing into Tar Heel Nation’s collective attention during the Kentucky win, Kerwin was looked at to hit threes to relieve pressure in the post where Carolina’s opponents were double and triple teaming the bigs. Kerwin is showing more aspects to his game that will make him even more dangerous, and effective, going forward.

R.J. Davis shows guts in the second half

Roy continued his line-up alchemy, trying to get his formula juuust right. Caleb Love got the starting nod over R.J. Davis, and the St. Louis-native repaid that faith immediately with a made three-pointer on the second possession of the game. R.J also hit a three in the first half, but was equally quiet.

In the second half, R.J. sparked the team into life. Down five with 11 minutes left in the game, Davis hit a big three to get the Heels back within a possession. On Syracuse’s next possession, he stole the ball from Joseph Girard and was intentionally fouled on the breakaway, a definite red card if they were playing soccer. R.J. calmly swished the two free throws to tie the game.

Day’Ron Sharpe scored on the ensuing possession, and then R.J. stole a lazy pass from Buddy Boeheim to Girard and went in for an uncontested layup. Seven points in just over a minute. It was the sort of instant impact that Carolina fans expected from the diminutive White Plains point guard when he got to Chapel Hill.

Roy Williams will look to a rejuvenated Garrison Brooks as his point of attack going forward, but knowing that R.J. has this kind of juice in his back pocket will make Ol’ Roy, and Tar Heel fans, a lot calmer in tight games.