HOUSTON – These Final Four semifinals did not stop off for any dense suspense on their own. They served only to foretell of the two continuous forces headed for a final clash, when North Carolina will play Villanova in a closing Monday reserved only for the masterful.
On Saturday evening, Barely had Villanova finished its Final Four-record rout of Oklahoma, by the time North Carolina followed with more of the dominance that has carried it through this NCAA tournament. Scoring 3rd time win over its Atlantic Coast Conference brethren Syracuse this season, and this time by 83-66. Meanwhile it ran into North Carolina’s first national title game since the program’s fifth NCAA championship of 2009; there was no need for it to even have to flinch much at its own deficiencies.
Clear into the middle of the second half; the Tar Heels (33-6) wasted their first 11 tries from three-point range. But that did not matter a lot, as they did the same against a Syracuse zone renowned as one of the game’s most enduring puzzles. Also, it did not matter.
The Tar Heels counted on their defense to support Syracuse to 27-for-66 shooting (49 %); they barely unlocked things and took their skill and patience inside. Their completeness meant that even the academic-fraud half of the semifinal Saturday, with its battle of schools noted lately for the presence of inquisitive NCAA investigators, couldn’t major in intrigue.
North Carolina outscored Syracuse 26-12 in the paint, as it built a 39-28 halftime lead. That advantage would reach 50-32 by the end. An average, 32% three-point-shooting team to begin with, North Carolina showed adequately skilled of forsaking that option for spells and finding the interior for spoils.
Brice Johnson, an old college man of 146 previous college games, stood there alongside his friends. A 6-foot-10 senior, Johnson scored 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting. The 6-foot-8 Justin Jackson scored 16 on 6-for-12. The 6-foot-10 Kennedy Meeks scored 15 on 7-for-9. When North Carolina did miss shots, it treated those only as rough drafts primed for tap-ins. It out-rebounded Syracuse by 43-31, including 21-11 in the second half.
It was obvious enough that North Carolina was too big to permit the comebacks that allowed Syracuse, a No. 10 seed considered a toss-up even to get into the field, to slip past Gonzaga and Virginia and all the way to Houston. The Tar Heels could ensure that their quadrant of the 75,505 spectators would continue along a ride of limited palpitations; having coursed through the East Region with four wins of margins no smaller than 16.
North Carolina already had gone inside to Johnson repeatedly early in the second half as its lead grew early to 17. It already had seen Joel Berry II feed Jackson low, and it had staged a gorgeous play where senior leader Marcus Paige batted Jackson’s desperate pass from a trap over to Meeks, alone beneath the basket.
When, seconds past the midpoint of the second half, Syracuse freshman Malachi Richardson stood at the top of the key with that look in his eye, it might have brought some dismal deja vu to the Virginia-minded. It was at roughly that stage last Sunday that Syracuse began its frantic climb from a 54-39 hole against the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers, with Richardson unstoppable in that process. When Richardson nailed this latest three-point shot utterly, Syracuse had drawn within seven points of North Carolina, at 57-50.
he veteran Paige picked a fine time to end the three-point woe, nailing one from the left of the top on the next time down. With scoring from inside (Johnson), outside (Theo Pinson) and inside again (Meeks), North Carolina grew its lead back to 67-53. All along, it never looked remotely flustered.
It would have the third trip to the closing Monday night in the past 12 seasons under Coach Roy Williams, and it would have a potential celebration to carry it through the spring while it awaits the rulings of the NCAA. To its ACC regular season title and its ACC tournament title, this grown-up bunch could add a third, and shiniest. As it happened on Saturday night, with Villanova up ahead, Williams said he would celebrate only until midnight.