North Carolina felt good about the way it played defense in its 78-59 win over Syracuse on Wednesday in the ACC tournament.
It was the first time this season that UNC held an opponent to less than 60 points.
“It’s time for us to defend,” senior wing Theo Pinson said. “It’s the only way we’re going to win.”
The sixth-seeded Tar Heels (23-9) certainly did against the short-handed Orange but the sledding will get tougher from here. UNC faces No. 3 seed Miami (22-8) on Thursday night. The Hurricanes scored 91 points in their win in Chapel Hill on Feb. 27. Miami had six players score in double-figures in that 91-88 win and went 11-22 from the 3-point line.
Syracuse was a three-man band on Wednesday with Oshae Brissett (20 points), Tyus Battle (15) and Frank Howard (12) combining for 79.6 percent of the offense. UNC’s guards, junior Kenny Williams in particular, made Syracuse’s high-scoring backcourt work for its points. Battle was 4 for 21 from the floor and Howard was 4 for 18.
The Orange made seven 3-pointers in the first half (on 13 attempts) but then went 1 for 10 in the second half.
“We played exceptionally well at times, we didn’t play with our brain at times,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But I thought defensively it was one of our better games of the year — if not the best game of the year.”
By points per possession (0.73,59 points, 81 possessions), only a blowout win over Western Carolina (0.71) and a loss to Michigan State (0.73) topped Wednesday’s effort by UNC. But Miami had a season-high 1.18 points per possession in its win over UNC.
The Canes were especially effective in pick-and-roll situations with guards Ja’Quan Newton (15 points) and Chris Lykes (18) getting to the rim and bigs Ebuka Izundu (12) and Dewan Huell (14) cleaned up the trash.
Freshman forward Sterling Manley, who was a minus-5 in 7 minutes against Syracuse (freshman forward Garrison Brooks, minus-3, was the only regular rotation player with a minus) will need to be more effective defensively for UNC to payback Miami for the regular-season loss.