Before Monday night North Carolina and Syracuse last played each other last April in the NCAA tournament national semifinals, a game the Tar Heels won on their way to a crushing loss against Villanova in the national championship game. The mission for these Tar Heels, since then, has been to return to that stage – to the final Monday night of the season.
They won their fifth consecutive game on Monday at the Smith Center, an 85-68 victory against a Syracuse team that, in many ways, didn’t resemble the one the Tar Heels played against early last April in Houston. UNC, though, did look a lot like the team it was last spring, when it ended the season with a stunning last-second defeat in the national championship game.
UNC coach Roy Williams last season said that was his favorite team he has led in nearly three decades as a head coach. He hasn’t seemed to mind this bunch too much, either. UNC’s victory on Monday was Williams’ 800th as a head coach.
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He became the fastest, by seasons coached, to reach 800 victories in NCAA Division I basketball history. By games, Williams is the second-fastest coach to reach the milestone. Only Adolph Rupp accomplished it in fewer games.
“It was never a dream of mine to win 800 games,” Williams said during a postgame ceremony that included a video montage featuring thank yous and appreciation from players he’d coached over the years, including ones from his days at Kansas. “But it was a dream of mine to coach guys like this.”
He turned to his current team then, and joined them in the celebration. While he savored the moment following his 800th victory, Williams said the most meaningful number, on this night, was 17 – the number of games his team has won.
The memory of the defeat against Villanova last April has carried UNC (17-4, 5-1) and, undoubtedly, seeing Syracuse orange on Monday night brought back some Final Four memories for the Tar Heels. Three of their starters started in that Final Four game against Syracuse (11-8, 3-3) last season, while the Orange’s starting lineup was entirely different than it was nine months ago.
The discrepancy in experience showed. UNC built a 42-30 halftime lead – its largest of the game to that point – and withstood Syracuse’s early second-half charge, when the Orange cut a 15-point deficit to three with about 16½ minutes remaining. The Orange needed only about two minutes to go on that 12-0 run, but UNC answered it with a 12-4 run of its own to extend its lead back into double digits.
Kenny Williams, the Tar Heels sophomore guard, scored the final points during that spurt on a 3-pointer that moved many in the Smith Center crowd to their feet. About 10 seconds later, though, Syracuse scored on a 3-pointer from senior guard Andrew White III.
It was often like that in the second half: UNC and Syracuse trading made shots, a 3-pointer here and one there, back and forth. The Orange made nine of its first 12 shots from the field at the start of the second half, but missed 15 of its final 20 shots from the field.
UNC, meanwhile, didn’t lack for offense – especially when Syracuse attempted to make a charge. After Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon made a 3-pointer from near the top of the key with a little less than six minutes remaining, the Orange again found itself with a chance, trailing 72-64.
From there, though, UNC scored seven quick points to take a 15-point lead with 3½ minutes remaining. Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward who finished with 20 points, began that spurt with a dunk. It continued with Joel Berry’s layup, and then Justin Jackson’s three-point play, which began on a breakaway layup he willed up and into the basket.
For the first time in college, Hicks scored at least 16 points for a third consecutive game. He has scored at least 20 points in back-to-back games for the first time at UNC. Jackson finished with 19 points and Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Meeks was instrumental in the first half, especially, against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. That zone has caused the Tar Heels some problems over the years since the Orange joined the ACC, but it didn’t provide much resistance on Monday.
After it ended, many in the crowd at the Smith Center remained in their seats for the postgame presentation celebrating Williams’ 800th victory. While a montage of former players offering kind words played above on the video board, Williams appeared to wipe away a tear or two.