The Tar Heels’ body language began drooping long before the final seconds of the game.
A feisty North Carolina squad opened the game with four quick points in the opening minute and forced four Syracuse turnovers by the first timeout four minutes into the game. UNC twice held a six-point lead and scored 10 points off of Syracuse’s turnovers in the first 10 minutes.
But a promising start was quickly erased by the Orange in the final 10 minutes of the first half.
Forward James Michael McAdoo netted six points in the first three minutes, and scored all 10 of his first half points in the opening 10 minutes. But Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim quickly made defensive adjustments to neutralize McAdoo.
“We started pretty slow defensively,” Boeheim said. “We let McAdoo get in the lane. Our centers made a nice adjustment, and our defense pretty much took over at that point. Jerami (Grant) and C.J. (Fair) had a huge first half.”
ACC Preseason Player of the Year Fair knocked down his first 3-pointer of the game with 10:34 left in the game to give Syracuse its first lead, one the Orange stretched for the rest of the afternoon.
As Syracuse found its game, UNC’s confidence waned. The team committed five turnovers after Syracuse claimed the lead and made only three additional field goals, two of them coming from goal-tending calls on Syracuse.
The Tar Heels looked exhausted late in the first half, sleepwalking through plays, seeming to go limp after every turnover or miscue.
“When things are going well, the ball is an energy pill,” Williams said. “When things are going poorly, you don’t have that energy pill out there.
“A lack of confidence and poor play tends to make you be more tired than you would be if you’re playing better.”
By the end of the first half, the Orange held a 22-13 rebounding edge, including eight offensive boards. UNC’s rebounding woes carried through to the second half, allowing Syracuse to corral nine additional offensive rebounds.
The Orange’s offensive rebounding sapped the Tar Heels of both their energy and confidence.
“It sucks seeing them get every rebound,” said guard Marcus Paige, who led UNC with 17 points. “They’re chasing it down, getting all of the 50-50 balls. That helps your team energy wise, that helps your team get more shots, have more possessions.
“When you’re the team not getting those, it’s hard to play 30 seconds of great defense and see them get the ball and know you have to do it again. And then they do it again. It’s really draining.”
McAdoo, who finished with 14 points, tried to recapture his team’s fleeting energy with a dunk nine seconds into the second half, cutting the lead to 10, but the Tar Heels simply couldn’t overcome the second-best team in the country.
“First six or eight or 10 minutes I thought we were aggressive, we were involved, and then I thought after that point they were just so much more aggressive than we were,” Williams said. “It ends up a 12-point game, but it really was more than a 12-point game.”