The Syracuse offense struggled against North Carolina on Saturday. They managed only 57 points, shot only 35% from the floor, hit only four of their 19 three point attempts and Tyler Ennis turned it over a career high four times.
Yet the Orange dominated the game and were in control throughout most of the contest. The reason? A stifling defense that frustrated the Tar Heels both inside and outside.
North Carolina, with a reputation as a bad outside shooting team, was held to just 2-12 from beyond the arc. In total, North Carolina shot 39% from the floor, but that is a bit misleading. James Michael McAdoo was 7-11 shooting, with most of his damage coming in the early stages of the first half.
Outside of McAdoo, North Carolina shot just 32%. If you go even further and take out Marcus Paige as well, the Orange defense held the rest of the Tar Heels to 25% from the floor. Syracuse also forced 14 Tar Heel turnovers.
Early on, UNC was getting inside, using strong interior passing to get easy buckets. The key was getting the ball to the high post, where McAdoo was hitting jumpers and facilitating. But Syracuse made the adjustment to come out to the high post and squeeze the wings inside to collapse the zone.
That worked to perfection. They held J.P. Tokoto, Joel James, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks to a combined 2-13 shooting. Rakeem Christmas was excellent with his interior defense, and Jerami Grant stepped up as well.
Up against a huge, physical front line, Christmas stepped up and matched their physical play. He finished with just two points, but was a force on the defensive end. The junior forward blocked four shots, grabbed four rebounds and came up with a steal while committing just one foul.
Grant, who added 12 rebounds to his 12 points, was also strong defensively. He blocked two shots but frustrated the Tar Heels with his length and athleticism. Grant uses his feet very well, able to make up ground quickly as he rotates inside and out along the baseline.
"Today we played our best first-half defense, I think," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "Of their 22 points in the first half, six or eight were off of turnovers, so that's a very good defensive effort."
The rest of the Orange were strong defensively as well. C.J. Fair chipped in a steal and two blocks. Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney frustrated the smaller Tar Heel guards with deflections and preventing penetration. The Orange starting backcourt finished with seven steals and a block on the afternoon.
The performance was so strong, the 45 points North Carolina managed Saturday afternoon were the lowest in the 10-plus years Roy Williams has been their head coach.
Syracuse is in a bit of an offensive slump, having struggled on that end in two of the last three games. But one thing has remained constant for the second ranked team in the country, a strong defense that continues to get better each game.