Theo Pinson drives inside en route to 16-point, 11-rebound effort as North Carolina opened ACC Tournament with lockdown of Syracuse. (Photo by Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer)
BROOKLYN -- After losing their last two regular season games -- the first on a half-court shot at the buzzer, the second on a blown 13-point lead in which their point guard admittedly played "scared as hell" -- North Carolina's players knew what they were getting themselves into Wednesday evening.
Under the backdrop of postseason play for the first time this season, and with the opportunity to improve its NCAA Tournament seeding at stake, not only did the reigning national champions handle their affairs appropriately, they left a strong initial impression as well.
Entering the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on the heels of losses to Miami and Duke that saw a potential No. 2 seed slip all the way to the No. 6 spot, the Tar Heels responded with a spirited effort, particularly on the defensive end, defeating Syracuse to advance to the quarterfinals at Barclays Center with a commanding 78-59 victory.
"We knew we had to come in and take care of business," said Kenny Williams, whose 17 points led UNC past the 11th-seeded Orange and into a second meeting with Miami in a ten-day span. "We never talk about, 'oh, we lost two in a row, we gotta get this one.' But we know it's March, it's tournament time and after the last game, we were saying, 'it's go time.' I think everybody had an extra pep in their step tonight."
"I thought, defensively, it was one of our better games of the year, if not the best game of the year," Roy Williams added after seeing his Tar Heels allow a scant 31 percent shooting night to Syracuse and only ten field goals in the second half.
UNC (23-9) was matched almost evenly through the opening minutes by Syracuse, whose three-point shooting kept the game close despite the Heels' efforts to disrupt the Orange's 2-3 zone defense by getting out in transition and raising the tempo on their fast break. Their escapades eventually succeeded in the form of an 11-0 run over five minutes in the latter part of the first half, beginning on a conventional three-point play by Luke Maye and ending in a Cameron Johnson layup to turn a one-point Tar Heel lead into a 31-19 cushion with 5:16 remaining in the opening stanza, dominating the lane and continually pounding the basketball inside on a night where UNC outscored Syracuse in the paint by a decisive 36-22 margin.
"They contest every shot that goes to the rim," Theo Pinson said of attacking Syracuse in the paint on his way to a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double. "Every point we could get in the middle, I wanted to put pressure on them to make a good play and keep attacking. We got the call, so it was good on our part. It helped us."
UNC took a 39-29 lead into the locker room at halftime, and maintained a double-digit advantage for all but one second thereafter, going up by as many as 21 points before Syracuse (20-13) gradually drew closer, coming within nine until the Tar Heels closed the game on a 12-2 run.
Four players scored 13 or more points in the winning effort, as aside from Williams and Pinson, Maye finished one rebound short of a double-double with 13 points and nine boards, while Johnson's 13 points came with five rebounds and four assists, the latter number contributing to an overall tally of 20 helpers on 25 made field goals.
"We're such an unselfish team," said Pinson, whose six assists were a team-high. "Since I've been here, we've always been good about passing the ball. We love playing with each other, and we want to get each other going."
The Tar Heels will look to carry the momentum from Wednesday's authoritative performance into Thursday's quarterfinal with Miami, who put a damper on UNC's senior night ceremonies in a 91-88 win at the Smith Center on February 27, capped by Ja'Quan Newton's buzzer-beating heave to answer a game-tying three-pointer by Joel Berry II, producing a finish that harkened back to the 2016 national championship game in which Villanova's Kris Jenkins defeated UNC with a three of his own at the horn.
"Miami played a big-time game against us," Roy Williams reminded the media in attendance at his postgame press conference. "We couldn't stop them. We remember that, they remember that. But we have to play better tomorrow."