Another exhaustive effort from Jamie Cherry and Kea couldn’t offset a 29-point performance from ACC Player of the Year Alexis Peterson, as Syracuse (21-9, 11-5 ACC) was hardly threatened through 40 minutes on Thursday.
For North Carolina (15-16, 3-13 ACC), it was an inconsequential loss in a long string of crippling ones.
Four years ago, the trajectory of the program was skyward. UNC secured the top recruiting class in the nation — for the next four years, at least, the Tar Heels would be perennial contenders. And for a season, they were. Even with head coach Sylvia Hatchell away from the team, the team was on the doorstep of the 2014 Final Four.
Then Diamond DeShields, UNC’s leading scorer, transferred to Tennessee. A year later, under the cloud of an NCAA investigation, the other three followed suit: Allisha Gray to South Carolina, Stephanie Mavunga to Ohio State and Jessica Washington to Kansas.
So Cherry — the seventh scoring option as a first-year — became the de facto face of the Tar Heels. Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker were forced to play nearly every minute as newcomers last year. And this season, Kea went from a role player at Vanderbilt to the leading scorer at UNC.
“They didn’t know they were coming into the roles that they had,” Cherry said.
But glimpses of potential shined through. A school-record 14 made 3-pointers and near triple-double from Kea lifted UNC over a ranked N.C. State team in January. A career-high 32 points from Cherry was too much for Pittsburgh in Wednesday’s 72-60 win — UNC’s first in the postseason since 2015.
But on Thursday, it wasn’t enough.
Syracuse exploited North Carolina’s cast of first-year forwards — an issue that’s plagued the Tar Heels the past two seasons. On the game’s first play, the Orange grabbed three offensive rebounds before converting a layup. Syracuse would finish the game with 29 offensive boards; UNC had 23 total rebounds.
“It’s just tough to try to come back from that,” Cherry said.
Threes from Cherry and mid-range jumpers from Kea chipped away at a sizable deficit. But Syracuse was relentless, attacking the paint and forcing UNC’s first-years to rotate along the perimeter. With Hillary Fuller — the team’s only reliable post player this season — and both Watts and Walker out for the season, the Tar Heels could only wait for the bleeding to stop.
“It’s been hard for us to get some sort of consistency,” Hatchell said.
As the final minutes drained from the clock, the players bided their time. It was the end of their season — and hopefully of an era.