When Malachi Richardson drained a long 3-pointer just over halfway through the second half Saturday, Syracuse was on a 10-0 run, and had whittled North Carolina’s 17-point lead down to 57-50.
Could the Orange, who already this NCAA Tournament pulled off an unlikely comeback against Gonzaga, then a seemingly impossible one against Virginia, do it again in the Final Four?
On the Tar Heels’ next possession, North Carolina guard Marcus Paige hoisted a 3-pointer of his own. North Carolina had missed its first 12 attempts behind the arc.
And he nailed it. The Syracuse run ended, the Tar Heels would inexplicably make four of their last five 3-point tries, pulling away to win 83-66 at NRG Stadium, ending the Orange’s highly improbable NCAA run.
The Tar Heels (33-6) now move on to face Villanova
(34-5), which obliterated Oklahoma 95-51 in the earlier semifinal Saturday, for the national title Monday night. The game will air at 9 p.m. on TBS. The Tar Heels on Monday night will appear in the NCAA championship game for the 10th time in school history, seeking their sixth national championship. UNC was the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four.
The Tar Heels then were presented with a pivotal moment, the kind they faced during the East regional championship game when Notre Dame took a brief one-point lead amid a 12-0 run. In that game UNC responded with a 12-0 run of its own to regain control.
This one, on Saturday night, the Tar Heels’ response was nearly as swift when Syracuse threatened. After Richardson’s 3, UNC answered with a
10-3 run that included a Paige
3-pointer his first of the game, after missing his first four attempts — a dunk from Brice Johnson after an aggressive spin move and a Theo Pinson 3, his first and only of the game.
When junior forward Kennedy Meeks tipped in his own miss with about 71⁄2 minutes remaining, UNC led 67-53. Syracuse cut its deficit down to 12 points, and then 10 — and then 10 again, two more times, with a little less than four minutes to play — but the Orange came no closer.
After Trevor Cooney’s layup cut UNC’s lead to 74-63 with three minutes, 14 seconds to play, Paige answered with one of the more important shots of the game. His 3-pointer from the left wing — his third 3 in a span of less than six minutes — pushed the Tar Heels’ lead back to 13 with less than three minutes to play.
Despite its late flurry of outside shooting, North Carolina did its damage inside of Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense, scoring 50 of its points in the paint. The Tar Heels were led by Brice Johnson’s 16 points and 9 rebounds. Justin Jackson also scored 16. Joel Berry II dished out 10 assists to go along with 8 points.
Trevor Cooney went 4-of-8 from 2 to lead Syracuse with 22 points. Richardson had 17, while Michael Gbinije had 12. Coach Jim Boeheim’s team seemed to run out of gas toward the end of the game against the deeper Tar Heels, as the Orange only played a seven-man rotation.
Syracuse trailed 39-28 at the half. The score was tied at 18 with 8 minutes to go in the first half, but the Tar Heels closed it out on a 21-10 run despite going 0-for-10 from behind the arc. From 2, North Carolina shot 68 percent. Meanwhile, the Orange were an anemic 3-of-10 from the foul line, and finished the game 4-13.
So ends a Syracuse season marked by a 9-game suspension of Boeheim for NCAA violations, a shaky start and finish, a surprise NCAA bid and an even more surprising tournament run.
The Orange (23-14) started out 0-4 in ACC play and
10-7 overall, and finished the regular season on a 1-4 slide, but made the tournament as a No. 10 seed with a 19-13 record. An upset over Dayton followed, then a win over Middle Tennessee State, which had shocked No. 2 Michigan State.
In the Sweet 16 Syracuse erased 9-point deficit with 6:24 to play to beat Gonzaga. The Orange followed that up by digging out of a 15-point hole in the final 10 minutes to pull away and beat No. 1 Virginia in the Elite 8 to reach Houston.
There they faced another No. 1, North Carolina. There was another big deficit, and then another comeback. Only this time, it was not enough.