SYRACUSE, N.Y. – No. 6 North Carolina countered Syracuse’s 3-point barrage with its high-low offense against Jim Boeheim’s signature 2-3 zone at the Carrier Dome on Saturday night. While the Orange’s treys eventually stopped falling, the Tar Heels’ offense kept rolling along in securing a 84-73 victory.
There’s a seduction involved with the 3-point shot. The roar of the crowd (or the silencing of said crowd, depending on perspective) accompanied by a potential shift in momentum can be intoxicating. Add in a zone defense baiting shooters to fire away from 3-point land and it’s easy to see why five of UNC’s first nine field goal attempts were from beyond the arc.
The Tar Heels missed nine of their 10 3-point attempts in the first half, a stat made worse by Syracuse’s 6-of-18 shooting from long range that ignited the 26,811 in attendance and led to a 33-33 tie game at halftime.
Despite that early temptation, UNC had ample evidence in the first 20 minutes that its interior size and strength were too much for the Orange. Roy Williams’s high-low offense, which elevates one post player to the free throw while keeping the other either on the block or the short corner, was especially effective once Kennedy Meeks entered the game with 15:20 to play.
Meeks, who missed the last seven games with a bone bruise in the left knee, managed to establish a presence in the post and scored six of his eight points in the first half.
The Tar Heels made their living out of the high-low after halftime with Brice Johnson (16 points) dishing out a career-high eight assists and Isaiah Hicks tying his career high with 21 points on 5-of-5 shooting (11-of-13 from the free throw line).
“There’s only one big in the middle,” Hicks said. “When you have Marcus [Paige] and other 3-point shooters out there, they really have to worry about them… When Brice posted that big man up or went against him, he got the ball and I was just open on the baseline.”
Trevor Cooney, who led all scorers with 27 points, hit Syracuse’s final 3-pointer to give his team a 56-50 lead with 8:28 to play. Thirteen seconds later, Johnson found Hicks underneath for a dunk and a traditional three-point play, a spark that prompted a 25-10 UNC run.
Even with Meeks available, Williams stayed with the Johnson-Hicks pairing due to their quickness over the final 13:25.
“We did try to focus getting it inside,” Williams said. “And we always try to keep one guy below the defense against the zone. We were able to get some. There were good passes by Brice, there’s no question about that.”
The Tar Heels connected on 12 of their final 13 field goal attempts and scored on its final nine possessions, one week after scoring on its final 11 possessions in a win over Georgia Tech. UNC shot 64.3 percent after halftime in what has become a trend of late for the nation’s most efficient offense. The Tar Heels are shooting 59.3 percent (89-of-150) in the second half of their last five games.
UNC shot 52.5 percent for the game despite Marcus Paige scoring three points on 1-of-8 shooting.
“It just shows you the depth and balance we have,” Paige said. “The last couple of years we’ve struggled to be an elite offensive team. This year, with the emergence of our sophomores, Isaiah playing a bigger role, and Brice being a dominant force on the inside, we have an elite offense. If I struggle, we still have other guys that can step up on any given night.”
To that point, Hicks became the fifth Tar Heels this season to top 20 points. Justin Jackson added 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting as UNC assisted on 24 of its 32 made field goals.