North Carolina is off to a great start in ACC competition after a few missteps in non-conference play. Syracuse has hung with every ACC opponent only to fall short down the stretch. Two historic programs entered a pivotal game on Saturday night with a lot on the line, but all of those storylines fell second to the return of Jim Boeheim.
Everything about Boeheim’s return from a nine-game NCAA suspension was an event. The largest crowd to watch a basketball game this season showed up to the Carrier Dome, no doubt enthused by the awesome hype video released on Friday. Boeheim’s no-comment entrance into the arena was an event worth documenting, and when he was introduced to the crowd there was a standing ovation.
Then the game started.
The big on-court story was not the return of a coach but the return of UNC big man Kennedy Meeks. Meeks off came off the bench to provide 8 points with a couple good buckets in the first half, but Roy Williams didn’t need him to push much more thanks to a stellar game from Isaiah Hicks.
Hicks came off the bench to provide 20 points on 5-for-5 shooting with a 10-for-11 showing at the free throw line. When North Carolina settled for jump shots over Syracuse’s zone defense, the Orange pushed ahead. When the Tar Heels worked the ball inside through Brice Johnson (12 points, seven assists), the efficiency was noticeably better.
After scoring 39 points against Florida State on Monday, Brice Johnson’s 12 points seemed like light production but the senior was solid when it counted, making good passes from the middle of Syracuse’s zone and finding open looks near the basket, even on broken plays.
Marcus Paige being Marcus Paige. https://t.co/xHdHWeu7f7
— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) January 10, 2016
But Syracuse was desperate. The Orange got off to an 0-3 start in ACC play and went 4-5 with Boeheim suspended. Beating North Carolina would be a great chance to get on a roll before facing Wake Forest, Duke and Virginia in a three-game road swing later this month. After losing to Clemson in overtime earlier this week, the Carrier Dome was aching for an upset in primetime.
Trevor Cooney was outstanding, leading all scorers with 27 points in 39 frantic minutes of action. When Cooney’s heat check three-pointer from nearly 35 feet dropped, the fans roared with hopeful voices as the Orange surged ahead. Syracuse needed a big night from DaJuan Coleman and it got it, with a season-high 27 minutes providing a big body inside against North Carolina’s deep front line.
The real anomaly for Syracuse was Michael Gbinije’s performance. Perhaps the Orange’s most important player to this point had just 10 points for the game and didn’t get his first field goal until the 3:30 mark in the second half. .
North Carolina is now 4-0 in the ACC for the first time under Roy Williams and with Meeks back in the lineup this is a fully stocked team that gets a week off before returning to action at home against NC State next Saturday.