Syracuse was threatening to create another surprising NCAA tournament moment. But as soon as North Carolina felt the Orange creeping close, the Tar Heels played like the tournament favorites they are.
Top-seeded North Carolina brushed aside any upset thoughts the 10th-seeded Orange might have had in a dominant 83-66 Final Four victory Saturday night at NRG Stadium.
The Tar Heels will face second-seeded Villanova for the tournament championship on Monday night. The Wildcats advanced with a 95-51 rout of Oklahoma in the first semifinal.
North Carolina advanced to its 10th title game in school history. The Tar Heels are aiming to win a sixth championship and their first since 2009.
“I couldn’t be having a more fantastic ride than I’m having right now,” said coach Roy Williams, who is seeking his third tournament championship with the Tar Heels.
Forward Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson led the Tar Heels with 16 points apiece. Kennedy Meeks added 15 points and Marcus Paige scored another 13, proving how multi-faceted and dangerous the Tar Heels are.
Only three teams in history had come back from 14-point or larger deficits in the Final Four (1963 Loyola, 1989 Seton Hall, 2001 Duke). Syracuse, which trailed by as many as 19 points, couldn’t join that club.
The Orange’s zone had prompted a come back from a double-digit deficit against top-seeded Virginia in the Elite Eight. Syracuse cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 57-50 with 9 minutes, 46 seconds remaining with some sharp shooting from guard Trevor Cooney and forward Malachi Richardson.
Cooney finished 9 of 18 with 22 points.
“It’s tough right now but I’m so proud of these guys,” he said. “Coming into the tournament, we weren’t even supposed to be in there (others) said.”
The Syracuse run just seemed to anger the deeper and stronger Tar Heels, who answered with some big shots of their own from Johnson and Paige. Paige and Theo Pinson hit the Tar Heels first 3-pointers of the game after starting 0-for-12 from beyond the arc.
“For us, it was something we thought was going to be happening,” Williams said of the Orange press. “We hoped we’d be ahead.”
North Carolina’s muscle made a difference, outscoring Syracuse 50-32 in the paint.
The Tar Heels have beaten every tournament opponent by at least 14 points.
Despite the victory, Williams was testy with reporters postgame, saying the media has been too critical of his team this season.
Syracuse’s loss ended a remarkable tournament run.
The Orange were criticized roundly when they were selected to the tournament field as a bubble team that had lost five of its last six games. But they put together a surprising postseason, becoming the first No. 10 seed to appear in a Final Four.
“I told the players after the game I’m really prouder of this team than any I’ve ever coached,” said Boeheim, who served a nine-game suspension during the regular season for numerous NCAA violations. “This team battled through an awful lot of things. It would have been very easy to have a horrendous year.”