NEW YORK — With five North Carolina players who stand at least 6 feet 10 inches, there are very few teams in the nation that can make the Tar Heels look as small as Syracuse did Friday night.
But the Orange didn’t do so with length. They dominated the paint with brute force.
Sure, Syracuse lit it up from the perimeter and hit timely 3-pointers. But the Tar Heels’ inability to stop the Orange’s inside game hurt them just as much.
For the first time this year, the Tar Heels didn’t own the inside. Syracuse outscored UNC by a 46-28 margin in the paint.
The key to this advantage had nothing to do with fancy post moves or finesse. With the kind of position Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson were able to get, they needed neither.
“Their big guys did a great job getting our big guys buried so close to the basket,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
And from there it was easy. All that was left to do was to catch the ball and muscle it straight up.
The North Carolina frontcourt might have had a few inches on Syracuse’s bigs. But even giving up a bit of size at 6-foot-9, Onuaku outweighed UNC’s heaviest player, Deon Thompson, by 16 pounds.
He threw those extra pounds right into the chest of Thompson and the rest of the Tar Heels.
“He’s a load down there,” Thompson said. “He played well tonight.”
Onuaku bullied his way to 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting and pulled in seven rebounds.
Listed at 261 pounds, he also had a 36-pound advantage against Ed Davis. Davis, too, got pushed around down low.
“He’s a big guy, so it’s kind of hard keeping him out,” Davis said. “He was just really trying to throw his weight on me.”
When it wasn’t Onuaku, it was Jackson, who weighs in at 240. Jackson was also efficient, shooting 3-for-4 from the field.
Defending the bigs was made more difficult since Syracuse’s other forward, Wes Johnson, had a hot hand from the perimeter. And how could the Tar Heels double-team the center when they’d be leaving open the tournament MVP?
These matchup problems opened up the floor for the balanced Syracuse offense. Syracuse jump shooters were a little more open, and UNC help-side defense was a little too slow.
“When (Onuaku) is a force in there, it makes us a different team,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
Thompson said the problem was not with UNC’s game plan or preparation. He said the Tar Heels just need to get tougher on defense.
And they’ll need to do it in a hurry, with three more teams ranked in the top five scheduled in the Tar Heels’ next six games.
“Take pride in it,” Thompson said. “Take pride in the defensive side, and strap up and play defense. That’s what it boils down to.
“We can’t draw up any tricky schemes and try and tie down what they do, but just have some pride and step up and play defense.”
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