In the midst of a tumultuous season of ACC play, the North Carolina men’s basketball team showed renewed energy in a victory against N.C. State on Tuesday. With only three conference games remaining, the Tar Heels will look to keep their momentum going with a matchup against Syracuse, slated for Saturday in New York.
The Orange have had struggles of their own since the start of February, losing three out of their last five and falling out of the NCAA Tournament bubble discussion as the final stretch of conference play looms.
For the Tar Heels to get their fifth conference victory of the season and their first two-game winning streak since late January, they will have to find a reason to finish the year strong despite the absence of at-large NCAA Tournament hopes.
After a series of buzzer-beaters, tough losses and the occasional hard-fought win, these three keys can notch UNC a victory against the Orange on Saturday.
Keep looking to Garrison Brooks
Brooks put the team on his back against N.C. State on Tuesday. His 30-point, nine-rebound effort stood out in what has already been an impressive campaign for the forward. After missing UNC's blowout loss at Louisville due to illness, Brooks looked like a man on a mission in his return to action.
The junior came through with key plays on both ends of the floor when the team needed them and helped to close out Tuesday’s matchup by burying shots from the free-throw line in the game’s closing seconds.
Throughout ACC play, the Tar Heels have looked their best when Brooks plays a major role in the offense. The junior has been the only player to reach double-digits in scoring in each of North Carolina’s conference victories, so giving him the ball has to be a priority for UNC to succeed against Syracuse.
Contain Elijah Hughes
Despite UNC taking a 93-85 victory over the Orange last year, Hughes was able to find success on both ends of the court against the Tar Heels. The redshirt junior forward put together a solid performance with 15 points, all of which came from 3-pointers, and two blocks.
It’s no secret that North Carolina has struggled to defend the long ball this season — UNC ranks 205th in the nation in 3-point defense — and with Hughes being Syracuse’s leading scorer and a 34 percent shooter from beyond the arc, containing him will have to be a key focus for the Tar Heels.
In his last two games for the Orange, Hughes combined for 45 points against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, two teams that defeated North Carolina this year. If UNC hopes to avoid more heartbreak, it will have to have success stopping Hughes' hot hand from three.
Convert at the free throw line
North Carolina has the second-worst free throw percentage in the conference, hitting on only 66.6 percent of its shots from the line. With each of UNC’s last four home games coming down to the final minutes, hitting free throws will be key for the Tar Heels to have success on Saturday.
An overtime loss to Duke where UNC missed 17 free throws is most emblematic of the team's struggles this season. It wasn’t until Tuesday’s game against the Wolfpack that the Tar Heels finally found their stride at the charity stripe. In the final moments of the game, Brooks and Cole Anthony were able to get points at the line to close the game out.
With many of North Carolina’s recent games coming down to the last few minutes, hitting free throws late against the Orange could decide if the Tar Heels will win their second game in a row or suffer yet another nail-biting loss.
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