CHAPEL HILL — If the North Carolina basketball team has been overlooked by all the hype surrounding Zion Williamson and Duke this season, as Nassir Little suggested last weekend, the Tar Heels are doing everything they can to call attention to themselves.
By beating Syracuse 93-85 at Smith Center on Tuesday behind a career-high 34 points from its own freshman star Coby White, coach Roy Williams’ fifth-ranked team won for the 11th time in its last 12 games.
Combined with the Blue Devils’ loss at Virginia Tech and Virginia’s night off, the ACC’s hottest team suddenly stands alone atop the league standings heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
“We feel like we’ve got some momentum right now and we want to take advantage of it,” said graduate forward Cam Johnson, who contributed 16 points and seven rebounds despite an off shooting night. “We’re just taking it one day at a time, enjoying it along the way and trying to win as many games as we can.
“We’ve put ourselves in the best position possible. Now we’ve got a lot to focus on at the end of the season.”
The Tar Heels weren’t exactly locked in Tuesday. But then, they didn’t have to be the way White was shooting.
The young point guard made six 3-pointers against Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone and went 10 for 10 from the free throw line to lead his team to its eighth straight win against the Orange. In doing so, he became the first UNC freshman to score 30 or more points in a game three times, having hit for 33 in both a win against Miami on Feb. 9 and a loss to Texas in Las Vegas on Nov. 22.
What made the performance all the more impressive is that White came into the game battling a shooting slump, having made only three of his last 16 field goal attempts over the past three games.
“After getting my first one in, I felt pretty good,” White said. “I was just trying to find my rhythm and get my confidence back. I feel like for a while there, I kind of lost my touch and my shot. I was questioning my confidence a little bit. I kind of hit a wall. I think I played better tonight.”
The Tar Heels (23-5, 13-2 ACC) needed everything White gave them on a night in which seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams went a combined 4 of 19 from the floor and Syracuse hit a season-high 14 3-pointers.
He was especially important during the early second half surge that finally allowed UNC to take control after a first half in which the the Orange made eight of its season-high 14 3-pointers and led for all but 47 seconds of the opening 20 minutes.
White hit a pair of 3-pointers and converted a traditional three-point play during a 15-3 run out of halftime that turned a three-point deficit into a 58-49 lead.
The Tar Heels increased their defensive intensity during the second half and dominated the glass, outrebounding Syracuse 27-11 for a game advantage of 46-25. Eighteen of the Tar Heels’ rebounds came on the defensive end.
And yet, as dominant as it was at times, UNC couldn’t shake the stubborn Orange (18-10, 9-6) until the final 4½ minutes, when it opened its biggest lead at 83-73 on a 3-pointer by White, a steal and a dunk from the freshman and a pair of free throws by Kenny Williams.
“We just played with more effort and attention to detail,” Williams said. “We knew they had shooters and we let them get hot. In the second half we turned it around and upped our effort a little bit.”
Little was the only other Tar Heel to score in double figures with 11 points before leaving the game after getting poked in the eye. Although May was limited to nine points, he contributed 12 rebounds and a career high six assists while manning the dead spot in the middle of the Syracuse zone.
This night, however, belonged to White, who became the third different UNC player in the last four games to score 27 points or more.
“I’d like it better when all of them make baskets,” Roy Williams said. “Like I’ve said a bunch of times, we have the ability to score.”
That’s nothing new. The Tar Heels lead the ACC with an average of 84 points per game and have quietly been around the league lead since conference play began in January.
The only difference is that now, people may finally be starting to notice.