Syracuse kept coming back. North Carolina kept coming up with answers.
Senior guard Joel Berry scored the last four points of the game to help No. 10 North Carolina escape with a 78-74 win at Syracuse on Wednesday night.
It’s the sixth straight win for UNC (22-7, 11-5 ACC) since a three-game losing streak at the end of January and the Tar Heels’ sixth straight win over Syracuse (18-10, 7-8).
“It’s just funny how everybody was writing us off,” said senior wing Theo Pinson, who had a career-high 23 points.
“But we understand that we were playing terrible.”
UNC had some iffy late-game decisions to help Syracuse erase what was a 12-point deficit in the second half.
“Well, we made some dumb plays, I can tell you that,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We kept challenging them one-on-one in the open court when we have the lead.”
The Orange, with 26 points from sophomore guard Tyus Battle, was able to tie the score at 74. After an empty possession, Williams even called timeout with 2:20 left.
Williams, who rarely uses his timeouts, pointed out the main reason he did was to get junior forward Luke Maye back in the game. Maye went to the bench with 5:37 left with his fourth foul. UNC had an eight-point margin. It was gone by the time Williams called timeout.
The plan was for Berry to get free at the top of the key for a 3-pointer. He ended up with contested 3 at the end of the shot clock from the right corner instead.
Syracuse got the rebound of Berry’s miss but Battle missed his 3 on the next possession. Forward Pascal Chukwu got the rebound for the Orange. Berry’s eyes lit up when the clumsy 7-footer had the ball out on the perimeter.
“I knew that he wasn’t a solid player when it came to holding onto the ball,” Berry said. “I saw through the span of the game, his teammates were throwing it to him and he was losing the ball. When he put it down, I was like, this is my opportunity to grab it.”
Berry did and then out-raced Marek Dolezaj and Battle to the other end for tough layup at 1:38 and a 76-74 lead.
Syracuse had three chances to tie it or take the lead but missed three straight shots. Pinson corralled guard Frank Howard’s missed 3 with 17 seconds left and got the ball to Berry.
Berry was fouled with 12.5 seconds left and then made both free throws to ice the game.
The second-half rally, led by Battle and Howard (23 points), nearly offset a career game from Pinson.
The versatile wing scored a career-high 23 points and added seven assists and six rebounds. The Tar Heels carved up the Orange’s signature 2-3 zone with sharp interior passes to build its double-digit lead.
The soft spot of Jim Boeheim’s zone, which is more of a quarter-court trap, is the foul line and Williams knows it. Two years ago, All-American forward Brice Johnson — a tradition big in Williams’ offense — had a career-high eight assists in an 84-73 win by the Tar Heels here. It was Pinson’s turn on Wednesday night.
“Against them, we’ve always tried to get the ball right inside the foul line,” Williams said. “Sometimes we make good decisions, Theo made a bunch of good ones for us tonight.”
Pinson worked out of the high post and UNC’s ball movement was superb. The Tar Heels had 25 assists on 29 field goals, including 14 of 16 in the first half as they built a 41-32 lead.
The seniors made enough plays in the second half, when UNC needed them most, to keep their winning streak going.
The Tar Heels haven’t lost in February. After a 5-5 ACC start, that’s not bad.
“That’s not bad at all,” Berry said. “I’ll take that any day but this is not the time to get complacent. We’ve got to keep on pushing.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio