Sixty-eight teams down to two: North Carolina and Villanova. They'll play each other here on Monday night for the national championship.
Villanova made it amid a 95-51 dismantling of Oklahoma earlier on Saturday night. And then later there were the Tar Heels, who led by double-digits for nearly the entire second half of an 83-66 victory against Syracuse.
Before we go further, please check out some stories:
--This victory against Syracuse sent UNC to the national title game. Another victory against Syracuse, on senior right, ignited the Tar Heels' postgame run.
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--The Tar Heels were strong on the interior against Syracuse – and Kennedy Meeks came up big, again, and put more distance between himself and that prolonged slump.
--From columnist Luke DeCock, the UNC-Villanova matchup on Monday night presents a compelling storyline: the hottest team in the country vs. the best team in the country.
And now some postgame thoughts, quotes and notes from UNC's victory in the national semifinals:
1. The season will end where UNC believed it would – on the final Monday night of the season.
UNC's celebration was muted, its reaction tempered after its victory. Said Brice Johnson, the senior forward: “We're not done. We've got one more. We've got one more game to go.” Indeed. This is where the Tar Heels expected to be all along. Not merely in the Final Four. But in the final two – playing on Monday night for the national championship. It hasn't been the smoothest ride, what with injuries (Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks), some more questions of toughness (see losses against Louisville and Notre Dame) and a gut-punch of a defeat at home against Duke. But now UNC has won 10 consecutive games and is one victory away from its sixth NCAA championship.
2. The Tar Heels' defense stole the show.
All that pregame talk about how UNC would handle Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone – how it would attack it, how difficult it might be to face that for the third time this season. Perhaps the better question should have been about how the Orange would fare against the Tar Heels' resurgent defense, which has usually been spectacular – and stout – during the final month of the season. Syracuse shot 41 percent from the field – the 26th time in 27 games that a UNC opponent shot worse than 45 percent from the field. The only time that it didn't happen was in the East regional championship game, when Notre Dame shot 55.1 percent – and still lost. The Syracuse zone received a lot of attention, and rightfully so, entering Saturday. UNC, though, was the superior defensive team.
3. UNC responded every time Syracuse tried to make a move.
The Tar Heels led by 17 with 12 ½ minutes to play and it looked like they might win without much of an argument from the Orange. But it wasn't that easy. Syracuse needed less than three minutes to turn a 17-point deficit into a seven-point deficit with less than 10 minutes to play. And then Marcus Paige made a 3 to push the lead back into double figures for UNC, and Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, made a 3 not long after to put the Tar Heels ahead 65-53. Soon the lead was 14 again. And was it over then? Did Syracuse quit? No and no. Three times during the final six minutes Syracuse cut UNC's lead to 10 points. And all three times the Tar Heels answered. Twice they answered with Paige 3s. They were all important but the first of his 3s might have been the most significant for a couple reasons. One, it seemed to get Paige going individually. And second it extended the lead back into double digits after Syracuse made its initial charge. Said Paige, of that first 3: “You can feel those momentum changes I nthe game. They had it all when they cut it to single digits, and they were feeling pretty good. But to answer that 3 right back, you could feel that was a deep breath from that side of the stadium.”
--Roy Williams began his postgame press conference by saying he was “ecstatic.” Then he said he wanted to “get something out of the way first.” Williams was on his way to another national championship game after a season of winning and he had some losses – some important personal losses – on his mind. Said Williams: “I really wish Stuart Scott was here tonight. I really wish Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and my best friend in Chapel Hill, Ted Seagroves, was here. It's been a difficult year and a half because of all of that. They're up there smiling somewhere and having a good time. Stuart is saying Booyah, so I like that.”
--What Williams doesn't like, though? Retirement questions. He said tonight that he'd been asked that question – the one about retirement – “five times since I got into town.” Williams had a message for reporters in attendance: “Don't ask me that stupid question, either.”
--Kennedy Meeks' improvement in the past week or so can't be overstated. He scored 15 points on Saturday on 7-for-9 shooting, and also finished with eight rebounds. That's three consecutive double-digit scoring games for Meeks. Before the current streak the last time he'd scored in double figures in three consecutive games was way back in November and December.
--The attendance on Saturday night was 75,505 – second highest ever for the national semifinals, behind the 2014 semifinal Saturday in Arlington, Texas (79,444).
--One of the oddest notes I've ever seen on a postgame notes sheet: “Saturday's second national semifinal game was the 3,234th all-time game in the NCAA tournament.” Oh, OK.
--From the #kirschnugget files: UNC has won in its past four appearances in national championship games (2009, 2005, 1993 and 1982). UNC is appearing in the NCAA tournament championship game for the 10th time.