Since ACC play began (excluding one first game) North Carolina have looked as good as anyone else in the nation, with Marcus Paige finally getting his season on track, following their previous excellence with a 93-83 win over Syracuse to make it six in a row which ends what is probably their easier part of the conference schedule.
Paige led North Carolina with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists as he knocked down four 3-pointers as well, putting on his best performance of the season and his second highest scoring game as well and matching a season high in assists. Unlike his teammates which were quite mistake prone on the day, finishing with 20 turnovers, Paige didn’t lose the ball a single time and has looked more and more responsible with his handling of the ball and especially his shot selection over the last month.
Obviously, it wasn’t just Paige. Brice Johnson was unstoppable near the rim to finish with 17 points and 11 rebounds in 29 minutes, adding also 3 blocks. Kennedy Meeks scored 17 points and Nate Britt added 17 off the bench, outscoring the Syracuse bench on his own. Actually, no one scored any points off the Syracuse bench, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. The Tar Heels had 25 points of contribution from their substitutes.
J.P. Tokoto scored 7 points and had 6 assists in another bad shooting day from the forward who seems to have developed into much more than just a dunker this season, but needs to work on his shooting if he’s to become a more important factor, especially in terms of consistency, for this team. Aside from Tokoto there wasn’t really a problem, as the Syracuse defense of the last two years didn’t really make a difference on their first visit to Chapel Hill since moving to the ACC.
North Carolina shot 55.4% from the field and 56.3% from beyond the arc. It was the third time in five games that North Carolina shot 55% or better from the field, and also scored more points than anyone else has against Syracuse this season. Jim Boeheim said that his team’s inability to defend the 3-point shots well, giving up eight 3-pointers to Britt and Paige was what made the difference, because Syracuse did pretty well in the paint themselves.
Rakeem Christmas finished with a 22-12 double double while Trevor Cooney led all scorers with 28 points. But Syracuse had a hard time making the most of the North Carolina mistakes, shooting just 42.6% from the field. With a third loss in the last four games, Syracuse are still without a win against a ranked team this season (losing to Michigan and Villanova as well), and are having trouble putting an offense-defense performance together against the good teams.
While the run North Carolina have been on shows us this is a team to take seriously, we’ll know a lot more very soon. Most of their games were either at home or on the road against the weaker members of the conference. Playing in Louisville followed by a home game against Virginia and then going on three road games culminating in visiting Duke will probably be a very good lesson to this team in who they are right now, and tell us if they’re to be taken seriously when it comes to winning the conference and going deep in the tournament.