North Carolina sends reeling Syracuse to third loss in four games

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Syracuse dropped its seventh game of the season

For 36 minutes and change, Syracuse played #13 North Carolina tightly, but wilted late as the Tar Heels closed the game by outscoring the Orange 19-11 in the final 3:29 to pull away for a 91-83 win in Chapel Hill, N.C. UNC (17-4, 7-1 ACC) coughed up the ball 20 times in the game, but offset that by hitting 9-of-16 from deep after entering the game with a 31.8 percent success rate from three-point range on the season.

SU (14-7, 5-3) failed in their quest to secure a big-name win, in large part due to getting thumped on the glass, trailing by a 42-27 margin. The Orange defense also got picked apart. In addition to the Heels’ long range success, they also connected on 55 percent of their two-point field goal tries.

While Syracuse had a balanced scoring attack with four players in double figures, the Syracuse bench was once again manhandled by their counterparts. While only Ron Patterson and B.J. Johnson came into the game as substitutes, neither scored and the former went 0-for-5 from the floor, including three missed threes. Carolina, in contrast, got 25 points from their reserves.

After North Carolina got into the books with the first score of the night, the Orange piled up the next seven points. Rakeem Christmas laid the ball in for the first score, then Tyler Roberson followed with one of his own. On the next trip, Michael Gbinije stepped into a long three to finish the burst and a 7-2 lead three minutes into the game.

The Tar Heels bounced back, scoring seven of the game’s next nine points to knot the score at 9-9. Trevor Cooney, however, went on a personal 7-0 burst for SU to break the tie.

» Related: Syracuse is squarely on the NCAA Tourney bubble

First, Cooney stuck a long jumper from the corner. After Roberson came up with a steal, the ball eventually found Cooney, who splashed a three from the left wing. After missing a three on the next trip, Cooney atoned for his error, floating in a short jumper after a couple dribbles into the lane. The guard’s quick explosion gave Syracuse a 16-9 lead.

Just as they had previously, UNC matched the Orange, scoring seven straight points to tie the game once more. After being silent for a couple minutes, Cooney again posted a three-pointer to snap the Tar Heel run. Carolina got a three to match Cooney’s effort, but the guard hit another triple while fading to his left, then swished a step-back jumper from just inside the arc on the right wing.

The last shot gave Cooney 15 points in less than six-and-a-half minutes and SU a 24-19 lead with under seven minutes left in the half.

Carolina would chip away at that lead and eventually grab control on a three-pointer at 30-29. A pair of foul shots would extend the margin to three with just over two minutes on the clock, but Gbinije wiped out the gap with a triple. After Christmas came up with a steal, Gbinije dropped a fancy behind-the-back pass to Roberson for a lay-up and a 34-32 Orange lead.

The Tar Heels hit a three with just over a minute remaining in the session to go up by a single point, but Syracuse closed the half with a half dozen points for a 40-35 lead at the break. Kaleb Joseph started the mini-run with a pair of free throws, then Christmas added two of his own. With UNC inbounding under their basket, Roberson swiped the pass, then led Joseph downcourt with a pass. The point guard raced down the hardwood and dropped in a lay-up that fell through the net just before the buzzer.

Carolina came out of the locker room on fire, starting the second half with an 8-2 run to grab the lead. Cooney again had the answer for the Orange, hitting a three after Joseph shoveled him the ball, then dishing to Roberson for a jumper from the foul line and a 47-43 lead.

The two squads traded markers for a few minutes, but SU got a baby hook off glass from Christmas, then the big man zipped a pass to Cooney on a backdoor cut from the top of the key. Cooney laid the ball in while being fouled, then hit the free throw to finish the three-point-play and put Syracuse in front, 56-50, with less than seven minutes off the clock.

UNC would get a pair of threes to tie the game, then twice matched Orange scores to even the scoreboard again. The latter was the beginning of a three-point play that put the Heels on top, 61-60. Gbinije hit a bucket, but Carolina got two quick threes and tacked on a free throw for a 68-62 lead.

Syracuse did not roll over, though, getting two at the line from Christmas and a contested fadeaway from Cooney in the left corner to get back within two. Each team would tack on three buckets and the game went to the final media timeout with North Carolina holding a 74-72 lead.

Carolina made four free throws in their next two possessions to stretch the lead to six. Gbinije made a foul shot to get one point back, but a Tar Heels tip-in and another pair from the line gave the hosts an 82-73 lead with 90 seconds left.

The Orange resorted to fouling to extend the game, but they simply could not score to take advantage. A couple Carolina misses from the line kept them with 11 points and a Gbinije three-pointer and Cooney three-point-play on a nice stepthrough around two more UNC foul shots got SU within 88-81 with 35 seconds to go.

That was as close as Syracuse would get, as the Heels beat the press for a lay-up, then made a free throw following a Gbinije miss to reinstate their double-digit lead, and would go on to close out the game.

Trevor Cooney buried four triples as part of his game-high 28-point effort for the Orange. Rakeem Christmas logged another double-double, finishing with 22 points and a dozen rebounds to go with three steals. Michael Gbinije added 16 points, including a trio of treys, while Tyler Roberson was the fourth SU player in double digits with 13 points to go with his three steals.

Marcus Paige topped the Tar Heels with 22 points and eight assists, hitting four three-pointers along the way. Nate Britt, Brice Johnson, and Kennedy Meeks each piled up 17 points for UNC. Britt hit 4-of-5 from deep to account for most of his damage, while Johnson also snared 11 boards and had three blocked shots.

Syracuse has a week off to get back in the lab to make some adjustments, as their next game is Tuesday, February 3 when Virginia Tech visits the Carrier Dome to finish the two teams’ home-and-home set. The Hokies (8-11, 0-6) put together a second-half rally to eat up most of a 22-point deficit in the first contest, but lost to SU at home on January 3, 68-66. That loss was the second in VT’s current seven-game slide and the Hokies will host Pitt, then play at Wake Forest before coming to Syracuse.

Justin Bibbs, who hit four threes en route to racking up 22 points to go with 11 rebounds in the earlier meeting between the two schools, tops Tech with 13.6 points per game. Adam Smith, who averages 12.6 points on the year, was a mere 3-of-13 in the first meeting with the Orange. Trevor Cooney led four SU players in double digits with 18 points in that game.

It will be a late night, as the game will start at 9:00pm Eastern. ESPNU will televise the game and ESPN3.com will stream the telecast.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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