UNC coasts vs. Syracuse, will face Villanova for NCAA championship

HOUSTON — North Carolina defeated Syracuse 83-66 on Saturday in the Final Four and will get a chance to win the third championship under coach Roy Williams era on Monday night vs. Villanova.

If the preceding Oklahoma-Villanova game was one of the more surprising results in Final Four history, this one was about as by-the-book as you’ll find. The Tar Heels rolled through Syracuse for the third time this season in largely the same way it won the first two contests in ACC play. Its frontcourt won its battle in a big way, and outside of a quick run to bring it to single digits midway through the second half, there wasn’t really much game pressure ever applied by the Orange as the Tar Heels just carved up the SU zone from the inside.

“They had a couple of guys get into foul trouble,” guard Joel Berry II said. “We knew that we could get inside and they weren’t going to try to foul us. We just wanted to stay aggressive and attack them.”

In UNC’s previous two games vs. the Orange, Brice Johnson was a monster, and this game was no different. He scored 16 and had nine rebounds. Just like in the other games against the Orange this season one of his frontcourt mates stepped up in a big way, too. Kennedy Meeks had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, and also grabbed eight rebounds as he ran the baseline against the backline of the zone.

“I’ve always felt like I don’t want to do what they want me to do,” Williams said about his team’s success inside. “They play zone and want to shoot from the outside. We have got to get the ball to the inside to our big guys and they’re pretty good. Sometimes when we could get it in there it’s really effective.”

The Tar Heels just simply attacked the Syracuse 2-3 zone in the same way that they have all season. They busted it up from the inside, won the second-chance points battle, and shot an efficient 53.8 percent from the field despite only going 4-of-17 from behind the 3-point line. It was a simple strategy that was about as effective as could be.

On the outside, Justin Jackson also tied for the team lead with 16 points, and Marcus Paige added 13 himself. Joel Berry was his typical steady self at the point, and put up eight points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

For Syracuse, this means the end of its magical run from No. 10 seed to the Final Four. Trevor Cooney had 22 points in the final game of his college career to lead the way. Malachi Richardson added 17. After the game, coach Jim Boeheim had some strong words for his team.

“I told the players after the game that I’m more proud of this team than any team I’ve ever coached,” Boeheim said. “I’ve always been pretty proud of our teams.”

But now that their season is over, let’s take a second and look ahead. The Tar Heels will take on Villanova in the championship game on Monday night, and there will be a lot on the line in that one even just beyond the implications of a championship.

North Carolina can make history on Monday in multiple regards. On one hand, the 2015-16 iteration of the Tart Heels can become the fifth team in history to be ranked No. 1 overall in the preseason, win its league’s regular-season and tournament championship, and also win a national championship. Williams can become the sixth coach in college basketball history to win three national championships. Johnson could be on pace to join an elite group that can say it won both All-American honors and a Most Outstanding Player award in the same season.

Maybe they’re truly meant to be considered a historically relevant team, maybe they’re not. We’ll find out if it will be them or the team of destiny that is Villanova on Monday night.

Brice Johnson had 16 points vs. Syracuse. (USATSI)

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