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Brian Mull | | April 4, 2016

March Madness: 5 reasons why North Carolina handled Syracuse

  North Carolina shot well inside the paint and limited Syracuse's shots to roll into the title game.

No different than the opener, Saturday’s national semifinal nightcap offered little excitement for anyone except a North Carolina fan. Riding another impressive offensive display, the Tar Heels rolled into the championship game for the first time since 2009.

Here are five reasons UNC handled Syracuse’s zone and why coach Roy Williams is one step closer to a third national title.

Carolina's two-point dominance

North Carolina scored 50 points in the paint, scored 1.22 points per possession and rolled to an 83-point outing. Frontcourt quartet Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James hit 18 of 27 shots.

After missing all 10 3-point tries in the first half, the Tar Heels fired up just one in the first eight minutes of the second half (they missed). When Marcus Paige finally connected at the 9:25 mark it was critical, stopping a 10-0 run that sliced the Tar Heels lead to seven points.

The Tar Heels shot 65 percent inside the arc six days after it shot 72 percent on twos in the East Regional final win against Notre Dame.

What's scary -- and indicative of just how dangerous the Tar Heels can be -- they met their season averages in points and points per possession and still won by 19 points. 

UNC shut down Syracuse’s best players in the first half

The basketball adage is simple: Your best players have to play well in the biggest games. The Tar Heels took those words to heart on the defensive end, in particular, in the first half. They built an 11-point halftime lead by clamping down on Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson and Trevor Cooney, holding that trio to 7 of 26 shooting.

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Entering the game, the popular opinion held that Syracuse would need a longrange explosion from Cooney and company to upset the Tar Heels. Cooney, who came into the game with 277 3-pointers, found his stroke in the second half (4 of 8 for the game) but as a team the Orange was 8 of 25 (32 percent), a satisfactory effort for Williams and his staff.

Depth mattered

Gbinije and Richardson picked up two fouls apiece in the first half. UNC coach Roy Williams went 10 deep in the first half, and for the game the bench contributed 15 points. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim stuck with the six-man rotation (with five minutes for a seventh, Franklin Howard) that he's used all season.

Richardson picked up his third foul early in the second half and had to be cautious on the defensive end.

Hicks and James were sharp around the basket. Theo Pinson sparked UNC with defense and rebounding, and hit a key second-half 3-pointer to quiet a Syracuse comeback attempt.

Championship Countdown: Roy Williams and Brice Johnson 1-on-1
Syracuse clanked free throws

The Orange needed everything to go right to knock off the heavily favored Tar Heels, who were confident against a team they defeated twice during the regular season.

Missing nine of 13 free throws was hardly part of the recipe for a stunner.

In a relatively whistle-free game (only eight fouls were called in the second half), Syracuse needed every point possible to stay within striking distance of UNC. Instead, the Tar Heels maintained a double-digit margin for all but a few seconds of the final 20 minutes.

UNC handled the Syracuse press

Unlike Virginia, which crumbled against Syracuse’s aggressive fullcourt pressure in the Midwest Regional final, UNC picked the Orange apart and looked to score and beat it.

The Tar Heels passed over the top, reversed the ball quickly in the frontcourt and made the extra pass when necessary to find open shooters. After they quit hunting 3-pointers and start pounding the paint, the Orange had no answers.

UNC had 18 assists on 35 field goals.

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