With North Carolina trailing Syracuse 46-43 at halftime on Tuesday evening, the Smith Center crowd seemed uneasy. Its No. 5 Tar Heels (23-5, 13-2 ACC) had allowed eight Orange three-pointers and were only hanging around thanks to 19 made free throws.
The unease reached a peak during an awkward sequence with under three minutes left in the halftime break. As North Carolina’s pep band blared the introduction to “Here Comes Carolina,” the more than 21,000 in attendance stood and clapped — but no team appeared.
After 20 or 30 seconds of monotonous brass and awkward clapping, the Tar Heels finally stormed out of their locker room and onto the court. In the next ten minutes of real time, that storm manifested itself in a 16-3 run that gave UNC a 58-49 lead and led the Tar Heels to a 93-85 win over the Orange (18-10, 9-6 ACC).
UNC head coach Roy Williams didn’t seem to care that the Smith Center faithful were stood up for a few more seconds as he used all of the locker room time he could to light a fire under his team at halftime.
“He told us we didn’t play well at either end of the court. We weren’t moving the ball well, we were sticking, we weren’t focusing on defense,” Coby White said. “He questioned our toughness and told us if we want to be great we gotta do it every night on the court.”
After forcing just three turnovers in the first half, UNC turned the Orange over four times in the midst of that five-minute 16-3 run, sparked by Kenny Williams’ drawing a charge — the team-leading 19th offensive-foul he’s drawn this season.
Aside from a spectacular second half from Tyus Battle, who scored 23 of the Orange’s 39 second-half points, Syracuse couldn’t do much else — especially inside. The Tar Heels held them to just six shots in the paint and 10 points from inside the arc. UNC also won the second-half rebounding battle 27 to 11 and hauled in 12 offensive rebounds.
Perhaps the biggest reason for that interior success was the foul pressure that UNC’s forwards put on Syracuse’s bigs. The Tar Heels passed quickly and precisely, forcing the Orange to react late and foul to prevent open shots.
Elijah Hughes (who torched UNC for five three-pointers in the first half) and Marek Dolezaj both fouled out while three other Syracuse players picked up three fouls in the game. North Carolina took full advantage of those fouls, shooting 34-37 from the free throw line.
Of the shots that UNC got off cleanly, 76 percent of its made field goals (19 of 25) came from assists, the Tar Heels’ third-highest assist percentage of the season and the best since their January 19 win at Miami.
With the defense finally engaged, the front-court applying pressure, and passes humming, White went to work. The freshman guard scored nine points in the second half’s first three minutes and accounted for 12 of UNC’s first 20 points in the half. After scoring just 29 points in the last three games, White put up a career-best 34, including 19 points in the second half.
The Goldsboro product said he had lost some confidence over his three-game slump, but he knew everything was back to normal once he made his first basket on Tuesday night.
“He shoots,” Kenny Williams explained. “I wasn’t expecting him to do anything else. He found some gaps in (the zone) and was able to exploit it to get some layups. But that boy shoots.”
Tuesday night’s win was certainly not a complete performance. The first half missteps could have played the Tar Heels out of a game against a top-20 opponent.
But against an NCAA Tournament-bound Syracuse team, Roy Williams’ squad found enough of a gear to earn its 11th win in its last 12 games. For the first time since 2012, UNC holds a 13-2 record in the meat-grinder of the ACC regular season, good for a half-game lead over No.2 Virginia with the Cavaliers playing on Wednesday night.
There might have ben awkward moments in November and December, yet with March looming, here comes Carolina.