BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It’s still too early to know if the North Carolina basketball team has its mojo back after stumbling to a pair of losses to end the regular season.
But Tuesday’s ACC Tournament opener against Syracuse was a good start.
Chided by veteran starters Joel Berry and Kenny Williams for being timid in a loss at arch-rival Duke last Saturday, the Tar Heels were in attack mode from the jump. They consistently pounded the ball inside against the Orange’s zone and played some of their best defense all year on the way to a liberating 78-59 victory at Barclays Center.
The win sets up a quarterfinal matchup Thursday against Miami, the team that spoiled UNC’s Senior Night celebration with a game-winning halfcourt buzzer-beater just over a week ago.
“We knew we had to come in and take care of business,” Williams said after leading his team with 17 points on 7 of 11 shooting. “We never talk about, ‘Oh, we lost two in a row, we’ve got to get this one.’ But we know it’s March. It’s tournament time and after the last game we were saying it’s go time. I think everybody had an extra pep in their step tonight.”
Wearing warmup shirts with the name “Woody” inscribed on the back as a tribute to long-time play-by-play announcer Woody Durham — who died in the early hours of Wednesday morning — the Tar Heels (23-9) looked like the team that reeled off six straight wins in late February rather than the one that dropped consecutive games to Miami and Duke to end the regular season.
They shared the ball, recording 20 assists on 25 baskets, they took the ball right at Syracuse’s big men and got both in foul trouble, they pounded the offensive boards to the tune of 20 second-chance points, and they made big shots when they needed them.
Berry even got back on track by making two second half 3-pointers, ending a streak of 11 straight misses dating back to the Duke game.
“It’s always a relief to see (the ball go in the basket) when you haven’t hit a shot,” said Berry, who ended 2 of 9 from the floor. “But it wasn’t about my shot today. It was about our team and the way we needed to attack Syracuse. We wanted to get the ball inside and our guys did a good job of doing that.”
The duo of Theo Pinson and Luke Maye were especially effective around the rim, with Pinson contributing 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists while Maye barely missed matching his teammate’s double-double with 13 points and nine boards.
Even more important, their ability to get the ball into the middle of the Syracuse zone helped create 10 fouls on Orange big men Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe — both of whom fouled out.
While UNC used a balanced attack to begin pulling away midway through the first half, Syracuse (20-13) relied almost exclusively on the contributions of just three players. Oshae Brissett, Tyus Battle and Frank Howard combined for 47 of their team’s 59 points.
Although they were able to keep the Orange within hailing distance by combining for seven first-half 3-pointers, they had a much more difficult time just getting shots up over a final 20 minutes in which Syracuse shot just 28.6 percent.
The Orange also committed five shot clock violations in the game. The 59 points were the fewest allowed by UNC this season.
“I thought defensively it was one of our better games of the year, if not the best game of the year,” Williams said.
“We knew Battle, Brissett and Howard took the majority of their shots and we knew that they played a good game against us up at Syracuse,” Kenny Williams added. “We just had to lock in.”
After leading by 10 at halftime, UNC broke the game open by starting the second half on a 17-6 run that extended their cushion to 21 at 56-35 with 12:57 remaining.
Then the Tar Heels suddenly lost their aggressiveness.
The Orange took advantage of a five-minute scoring drought to cut the lead to just nine with 4:17 remaining. But just as visions of a second straight 21-point comeback began dancing in the heads of the Syracuse faithful in the crowd — as Notre Dame did to Virginia Tech in the previous game — UNC came to life again.
Two full-court passes that resulted in Kenny Williams layups highlighted a game-ending 12-2 spurt that allowed the Tar Heels to put the game away.
Though not fast enough for their coach’s liking.
“I really wanted us to maintain the lead so I didn’t have to play Joel and Theo and those guys as many minutes as I did tonight,” Roy Williams said. “That was the one thing I wanted.”
Instead, he’ll have to settle for a win that helped his team get back on the right track again.