They had strands of net tied onto hats with the words “Final Four” stitched on them in big letters. Their celebration after winning the NCAA tournament East Regional had barely ended when already North Carolina players found themselves facing with questions about Syracuse.
“We just won,” Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels sophomore forward, said on Sunday after UNC’s 88-74 victory against Notre Dame – a win that sends UNC to the Final Four for the 19th time. “I’m going to enjoy this one first.”
UNC coach Roy Williams, sitting next to Pinson, didn’t hesitate to add his support.
“I’ll tell you my man is coachable because I started to say, let us enjoy this dadgum game,” Williams said. “Let us enjoy this.”
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At some point, though, the glow of winning the East Region will fade. Maybe that already happened by Monday, a day later. Maybe it will begin to happen on Tuesday.
Eventually the Tar Heels’ focus will turn to Syracuse, a No. 10 seed that reached the Final Four with a victory on Sunday against Virginia, the top seed in the Midwest Region. Among a Final Four field that includes two No. 2 seeds – Villanova and Oklahoma – and UNC, a No. 1 seed, Syracuse is the outlier, the team nobody expected.
And yet here the Orange are.
“I’m not going to lie, we were watching the game, the Syracuse game,” Pinson said. “We saw they were down, but we all agreed as a team to turn the TV off and just focus on our game. We controlled our own destiny, and that’s what we did.”
UNC missed the completion of the Orange’s comeback win, then. Virginia led Syracuse by as many as 16 points but the Orange kept chipping away, little by little, until it was a close, competitive game in the final minutes.
And then Syracuse took over. The Orange, which finished 9-9 in the ACC and was seen as a potential NCAA tournament bubble team, took a one-point lead with less than six minutes to play and gradually pulled away.
Now UNC will be faced on Saturday with the difficult proposition of defeating a team for the third time in a season. The Tar Heels for the second consecutive game will be playing an opponent for the third time.
It happened against Notre Dame on Sunday. And now it will happen again against Syracuse on Saturday in the second game of a national semifinal doubleheader. The Villanova-Oklahoma game starts first, at 6.
That one in particular, will generate a lot of anticipation, a lot of hype. It’s supposed to be the more competitive of the two games, given the differences in seed – and record – between UNC and Syracuse.
That the Orange have reached this point, though, is “a pretty doggone indication of how good our league was, too,” Williams said.
UNC won both meetings against Syracuse, and its vaunted 2-3 zone, during the regular season. There was the Tar Heels’ 84-73 victory at Syracuse on Jan. 9. And then the 75-70 UNC victory on Feb. 29 – senior night at UNC.
In both games the Tar Heels used a different approach and strategy against the Orange’s zone defense. During the first, UNC found success with a high-low offense that often relied on Brice Johnson to receive a pass in the middle of the zone and then make a play. He often passed to Isaiah Hicks for a dunk or a layup.
Then, in the second game, the Tar Heels did what a lot of teams do against Syracuse’s zone. They shot a bunch of 3-pointers – a season-high 25, to be exact. UNC made six of those and, despite its cold shooting, held on while Syracuse attempted to rally from a deficit as large as 13 points.
Now comes the rematch of the rematch – with a trip to the national championship game at stake. That’s a little different motivator than, say, playing for positioning in the ACC standings.
As matchups go, Syracuse isn’t a great one for the Tar Heels, what with the Orange’s preference for playing a slower pace. Then there’s that zone defense, which presents plenty of problems, too.
The Tar Heels aren’t an ideal matchup for Syracuse, either. Not with how fast UNC likes to play. And certainly not with the way the Tar Heels have performed lately.
“In our minds when we’re playing our best basketball,” said Marcus Paige, UNC’s senior guard. “We feel like we can’t be beat. So that’s the mentality I’m sure all four teams have going in.”