Heels, 'Cats to play for crown
HOUSTON — This looked like an inside job all the way for North Carolina.
Out of nowhere, Marcus Paige figured out how to hit from 3-point land and the Tar Heels found themselves one win away from the program's sixth national title.
Using layups, floaters and putbacks — then, finally, three very timely 3s from Paige — the Tar Heels stifled another Syracuse comeback and pulled away for an 83-66 win in the Final Four on Saturday.
Syracuse trimmed a 17-point deficit to seven with just under 10 minutes to go. At that point, the Tar Heels (33-6) were 0 for 11 from behind the 3-point line.
Then, Paige made the first of his three, and the Tar Heels were pulling away again.
"I wanted somebody in a North Carolina uniform to make it," coach Roy Williams said. "I got really excited because he had done so many good things and hadn't been able to make a shot."
Paige finished with 13 points and Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson led North Carolina (33-6) with 16 apiece as the Tar Heels, the lone No. 1 seed in the Final Four, beat Jim Boeheim's 10th-seeded Orange for the third time this season. They'll play Villanova on Monday.
The Tar Heels, ranked 284th in the country this season from long range, bricked up 3 after 3, barely drawing iron on a few of their 10 misses in the first half. Paige opened the second with North Carolina's 11th straight miss, and for the next 10 minutes, the Tar Heels basically ignored the 3-point line.
Only when Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson triggered the 10-0 Syracuse run to make the score 57-50 did Carolina start thinking long range again. Paige made three 3s and Theo Pinson hit another to make Carolina almost respectable from the 3-point line: 4 for 17 for the game.
"We had a brain lapse there for about three minutes in the second half, but other than that I thought we were really good defensively against a team that's hard to guard," said Williams, in search of his third title.
Kennedy Meeks finished with 15 points and eight rebounds.
Before Paige found his range, Carolina built its lead on the inside, with big-time help from an in-your-face defense that held Syracuse's leading scorer Michael Gbinije to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting. The Orange only went 8 for 25 from 3-point range.
"We didn't have to play perfect, but we had to shoot better tonight," Boeheim said.
In all, North Carolina offered a reminder of the days before the 3-point shot was invented, when the way to really beat a zone — and Boeheim's 2-3 is the best in the game — was to make blink-of-an-eye passes in and around the paint and crash the offensive glass to take advantage of a defense that doesn't put bodies on bodies when the ball goes up.
That plan still works.
Early in the second half, Jackson made a jump pass from the corner to the lane, where Paige was waiting and batted the ball with an open hand over to Meeks, who dunked.
A bit later, Joel Berry got an easy offensive rebound and a layup to put the Tar Heels ahead by 17.
North Carolina finished with 16 second-chance points on 16 offensive boards. Even more telling were points in the paint: Tar Heels 50, Orange 32.
"Their zone, it's almost, on paper, a nightmare matchup for us because we don't shoot it well from 3," Paige said. "But we were able to get the ball inside, get it where we wanted to, get enough stops to win the game."
Syracuse trailed by 16 in its crazy comeback victory over Virginia last week to make it here. But there was no full-court press that could beat the Heels, and no meltdown awaiting from them either.
"They decided to press against a team that likes to run," Johnson said. "You can't speed us up the way they did Virginia."
Cooney led the Orange (23-14), the first No. 10 seed to make it to the Final Four, with 22 points. Richardson had 17, but after his 3 trimmed the deficit to seven with 9:48 left, Syracuse couldn't pull closer.
"I'm more proud of this team than ... of any team I've coached," Boeheim said. "This team battled through an awful lot of things."