Luke DeCock

Villanova vs. UNC: the hottest team against the best team for the title

UNC players: 'We're not all about ourselves'

University of North Carolina players Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II and Brice Johnson talk about putting team first as a key to their success.
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University of North Carolina players Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II and Brice Johnson talk about putting team first as a key to their success.

Villanova is, unquestionably, the hottest team in the tournament. North Carolina is, arguably, the most talented. It’s fitting these are the two teams left. It’s impossible to say what trumps what on Monday.

It is, however, a very formidable obstacle that stands between the Tar Heels and a national title. More formidable, certainly, than 10th-seeded Syracuse, which couldn't capitalize on North Carolina's wayward 3-point shooting Saturday as Joel Berry tore apart the Orange's 2-3 zone and the Tar Heels rolled into the national championship game with an 83-66 win.

In a game that could have been played in the Greensboro Coliseum, with two ACC officials on the whistles, the final ACC elimination of the season went to the Tar Heels, who had previously won both the regular season and the tournament. The ACC's unlikeliest Final Four team bowed out to its most obvious. And now, for the Tar Heels, a new challenge, installed as a tepid 1.5-point favorite in Las Vegas. Villanova didn't just beat Oklahoma, the Wildcats nearly doubled up the Sooners, 95-51.

“They won by how much?” Kennedy Meeks asked. “I didn't know that. That's crazy. I thought they won by like 12 or something like that. Wow. They're capable of doing those types of things.”

The 44 points represented the biggest margin of victory in a Final Four game since Bill Bradley's Princeton won by 34 back in 1965. Speaking of Final Fours past, the Wildcats looked like Villanova circa 1985, shooting 67 percent from the field and holding Buddy Hield to nine points.

This may be the best defensive team North Carolina has seen all season – on par with Virginia or Louisville, but playing with an absolutely supreme confidence at the moment. On paper, at least, Villanova lacks the size and bulk to deal with North Carolina's inside attack, but Villanova coach Jay Wright can do no wrong at the moment. Every string he pulled Saturday unraveled another Oklahoma jersey.

As hot as Villanova may be, the Tar Heels aren't far behind. They were utterly unfazed by their shooting struggles, grinding away at Syracuse, forcing turnovers, drawing fouls and using Berry's penetration to deliver the ball to the big men on the baseline against Syracuse's 2-3 zone. For more than four weeks, they have been at their best, laying waste to everything in their path – all five games in the NCAA tournament by double digits.

“Joel was the culprit behind all that,” said Joel James, who chipped in with two zone-busting jumpers. “He was aggressive attacking the wings and the edges of the zone and being aggressive and making Syracuse help so he could kick it.”

Syracuse's zone posed no threat, even with the Tar Heels' inability to score from outside. At one point, Marcus Paige, under the rim, deflected a Justin Jackson pass with one hand directly to Meeks for a dunk. No defense, zone or otherwise, can deal with that.

The Orange showed some life midway through the second half, cutting what was once a 17-point North Carolina lead down to seven, but Roy Williams called a timeout to scream his lungs out at his team after a loose ball went uncollected. Paige responded with the Tar Heels' first 3-pointer of the game – after 12 misses – and Theo Pinson added another shortly after as part of a 10-3 North Carolina run to answer.

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams remembers friends he's lost in the past year during his press conference following the Tar Heels' Final Four win over Syracuse.

Williams, at his ornery feistiest after the game, lamented the absence of the late Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and Stuart Scott and his friend Ted Seagroves while preemptively stifling any questions about his potential retirement (not that any were likely to be asked at this particular moment) and challenging reporters' practice attendance (they're closed to the media).

And then he said something, almost as an afterthought, that really hinted at what was underneath all the bluster: “We couldn't be having a more fantastic ride,” he said.

It's not over yet. One more game, the prolonged and extended ACC season over, the hottest against the best, a worthy champion either way.

Video from the celebration on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, N.C. Saturday, April 2, 2016. The North Carolina Tar Heels beat the Syracuse Orange 83-66 at NRG Stadium in Houston Saturday night.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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