The North Carolina men’s basketball team (8-4, 3-2 ACC) handled Syracuse (7-3, 1-2) with a 81-75 win Tuesday night in Chapel Hill to secure its third straight win. UNC avenged last season’s loss in the ACC Tournament and elongated its win streak to three after a 0-2 ACC start.
After a crushing blowout loss to Syracuse that terminated the Tar Heels’ ACC title hopes and culminated their 2019-20 season, North Carolina got retribution in its game Tuesday night, with new faces lining the roster.
UNC came out competitive at the opening tip, staying neck-and-neck with Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim, who quickly secured 8 points in the opening five minutes of play. Along with senior Garrison Brooks putting up a quick six points in the opening minutes for UNC, first-year guard Caleb Love had an encouraging start, notching a set of free throws and a 3-pointer from deep.
Brooks, along with sophomore forward Armando Bacot, emerged as leaders of the opening half, sparking a 7-0 run to take an early 23-18 lead. With minimizing turnovers and maximizing points off of offensive rebounds, UNC finally looked to be correcting its prolonged complications and cruised to a double-digit lead.
Despite UNC’s opening, which showed bursts of a team that was finding its shooting rhythm and chemistry, Syracuse’s Boeheim and Quincy Guerrier combined to dominate for a 14-4 run that tied the game 40-40 at the halftime mark.
With UNC building off of its early success, the team went on a nine-point run to open the second half while successfully fending off Boeheim. An energizing start fell flat as quick as it started with UNC’s shooting from the floor drying up while the Orange had momentum on their side with a 10-0 run.
The Tar Heels year-long shooting struggles continued in the second frame, as the team went 1-12 from the field to start the frame. But first-year guard RJ Davis sparked a late push, notching 10 points, and with the help of first-year big Day'Ron Sharpe and a 3-pointer from first-year guard Kerwin Walton, UNC took back the lead.
By focusing on post touches and strong rebounds, the Tar Heels closed the game with a six-point victory.
Who stood out?
Brooks further proved his ability to be a force against the Syracuse zone, continuing his dominant performance from the 2020 season finale. After stumbling for a few games, Brooks started Tuesday night, and proved why quickly. He assisted in the 7-0 run, putting the senior in double-digits for the first time since the N.C. State game on Dec. 22. Brooks’ 14 points in the opening half were also a season-high in a half and kept UNC competitive against Syracuse’s big-time shooters.
Bacot had himself another standout game, securing a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. The forward emerged as the game changer by posting up points and bullying Syracuse in the paint to secure UNC the lead.
Junior Leaky Black also played a quiet, yet pivotal, role on defense. Black did a great job defensively, keeping Boeheim off of the scoreboard in the second half, despite the guard exploding for 18 points in the first.
When was it decided?
In a game that was defined by an exchange of runs, and had a difference of just one point with three minutes remaining, it was a game of inches. With Syracuse’s points leader, Guerrier, fouling out with over a minute left, game-altering plays from both Brooks and Bacot with just seconds to spare gave UNC the victory.
Why does it matter?
After winning two straight, adding a third to that sheet feels critical for a team that hasn’t yet fully met expectations. The Tar Heels made critical improvements in shooting, were successful going back to their basics with big rebounds, and proved that they can close out games this season when the pressure is on.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels are slated to take on Florida State in a Saturday matchup at noon in Tallahassee, Florida.
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