HOUSTON – Syracuse’s run was coming. The Orange had rallied from seven down against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 before overcoming a 16-point deficit against Virginia in the Elite Eight.
Unfortunately for Jim Boeheim’s bunch, North Carolina has made a habit out of answering runs.
In the Sweet 16, Indiana cut its second-half deficit to 10 points on three different occasions, and the Tar Heels scored on the next possession each time, never letting their lead drop to single digits. In the Elite Eight, Notre Dame’s 12-0 spurt erased its 11-point deficit with 13 minutes to play, prompting UNC to answer with a 12-0 run of its own to lock up the victory.
On Saturday night, on the grandest stage of them all, Syracuse attempted to conjure up that same rally magic with a 10-0 charge to pull within 57-50 with 9:48 to play.
“At one point, we started playing the score,” sophomore guard Joel Berry said after the game. “That’s when they went on that run. They got some deflections, got out on the break, and they hit a couple of threes. It’s a good thing we stopped their run, but we can’t have plays like that. Sometimes it’s just hard to stop teams when they get on a run.”
Twenty seconds later, Marcus Paige buried a 3-pointer from the left wing. Next trip down, Brice Johnson’s slam dunk pushed UNC’s lead back to 12, and even after Trevor Cooney kept the pressure on with a 3-pointer on the other end, Theo Pinson matched him with a trey.
Three possessions. Eight points. 69 seconds.
“There are moments of desperation that set in when you look at the clock with eight minutes left and your team is down,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “You click into desperation mode, and if your team is winning, you’re going to have to respond to that. A team’s just not going to lay over and let you take it from them. Syracuse has been the epitome of that the entire tournament, whether it was Gonzaga or Virginia.”
After a three-minute stretch in which UNC did “some terrible things” according to Roy Williams, the boys in blue responded with 26 points and several critical defensive stops over the final 10 minutes.
“That's when we needed our press to work, we needed our traps to work,” Cooney said. “We needed to get some steals. It's tough to turn North Carolina over. It's tough to get steals against them. We weren't able to make those plays.”
Syracuse was unable to cut its deficit to single digits and suffered a season-ending blow as UNC cemented its 10th trip to the national championship game with a late 9-0 run.
The Tar Heels spent the offseason looking at signs hanging around the Smith Center documenting eight games last season in which they led late but were unable to close the deal. The last one on that excruciating list was its season-ending loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, a game that UNC led by seven points with 11:11 to play.
At the bottom of the sign was one question: “Can we finish?”
It didn’t appear that way at times this season. UNC led Northern Iowa by 16 points early in the second half before losing by four in November. Duke trailed by eight points with 6:49 to play at the Smith Center in February before closing the game on a 14-5 run.
The regular season finale at Cameron Stadium was a tipping point. Despite leading by seven with 3:34 to play, UNC had to make plays and free throws in the final seconds to clinch its outright ACC regular season title. Ever since, the Tar Heels have played with poise in crunch time, rarely phased while refusing to falter.
The Tar Heels have finished at each postseason stop just like they did on Saturday. All that’s left is one more finishing act in the title game on Monday.