By Jay Smith |@
Sports Capital Journalism Program
HOUSTON — TAR…HEELS…TAR…HEELS! The crowd of 75,505 inside NRG Stadium appeared to be split evenly between the four teams competing in Saturday night’s Final Four. But if you closed your eyes as the horn sounded, you would’ve sworn you were in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina defeated Syracuse, 83-66, to advance to Monday for the right to play for the national championship for the 10th time in the program’s storied history. The Tar Heels became just the second team to advance to a title game without having to face a top-4 seed. The good news for Carolina fans is that the only other team to do so was the 2005 national champion Tar Heels.
North Carolina (33-6) will meet Villanova, which defeated Oklahoma in the other semifinal, for a chance to win a sixth national championship.
North Carolina’s frontcourt proved to be too much for the Orange to overcome. Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Joel James and Isaiah Hicks combined to make 24 of 39 shots, or 62 percent. And North Carolina’s imposing inside game produced 50 points in the paint, compared to 32 for Syracuse.
Johnson scored 16 points and made six of 11 shots. Jackson scored 16 on 6-of-12 shooting. Meeks scored 15 points on an efficient 7-for-9 night.
But the Orange (23-14), the first No. 10 seed to reach the Final Four after dramatic come-from-behind victories over Gonzaga and Virginia in the Midwest regional, made one last second-half push that kept the outcome in doubt. After the Carolina ballooned to 16 at the 14:11 mark, Syracuse began to make its last stand. The lead began to shrink, little by little, very much reminiscent of the Virginia-Syracuse Elite 8 matchup. Suddenly, the lead was down to just seven.
“My pulse went up quite a bit, my heart rate went up quite a bit,” said Carolina coach Roy Williams.
It was time for the senior leaders of this veteran Carolina squad to step up. On the very next possession, despite starting 0-4 from three-point range, senior guard Marcus Paige made a three-point shot, the most important of his 13 points. Then Johnson’s slam pushed the lead back to 12. Johnson flexed and screamed to the Carolina blue clad section of the stands. The Carolina lead never again shrunk below double digits.
“After it goes in, you can feel the whole team take a deep breath,” Paige said. “They cut it to seven, we hit a three. You can feel those momentum changes in the game. They had it all when they cut it to single digits, and they were feeling pretty good, but to answer that three right back, you could feel that was a big deep breath from that side of the stadium.”
Last week, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said that the Orange weren’t good enough to overcome a poor game from their senior leader and leading scorer, Michael Gbinije. That appears to have been prophetic, as Gbinije struggled to find his rhythm and made just five of 18 shots and was held to 12 points, more than five beneath his average.
“I’m a little crushed right now,” Gbinije said. “I think we left it all on the floor.”
Boeheim told his players after the game that he was “more proud of this team than any team I’ve ever coached.” It may not have ended exactly as the Orange wanted, but the improbable run will be one ‘Cuse fans remember fondly forever.
This season has been particularly challenging for the Tar Heels. The program has been in the midst of a whirlwind of scrutiny over academic fraud that occurred over an 18-year period at the university. The uncertainty of the outcome of an NCAA investigation added pressure to the demands of the Carolina season. And with the Tar Heels headed for a championship night, their coach remembered absent coaches, and leaders, and friends.
“I really wish Stuart Scott was here tonight,” Williams said of the late ESPN anchor and Carolina alumnus. “I really wish Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and my best friend in Chapel Hill, Ted Seagroves, was here. It’s been a difficult year a half because of all of that. They’re up there smiling somewhere and having a good time. Stuart is saying, ‘Booyah,’ so I like that.”