With Syracuse holding a 56-50 lead, its largest of the night, the Carrier Dome crowd — which, with an attendance of 26,811, was the largest on-campus crowd at a college basketball game this season — had reached peak volume, as it seemed like the Orange might be on the verge of breaking the game open.
But before the crowd could get much louder, North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks caught a pass in stride from Brice Johnson and, in one fluid motion, dunked and got fouled. Hicks made the free throw, cutting SU's lead down to just three points and sucking much of the life out of the Carrier Dome.
The play was the start of a 34-17 UNC run that stretched over the game's final eight minutes and 15 seconds. For the Orange, it marked a fourth straight loss to begin ACC play and a fourth straight time they've failed to seize an opportunity to close out an opponent. This time, it was largely because SU struggled to get many defensive stops in the paint.
Over those final eight minutes and 15 seconds, the Tar Heels were 12-of-13 from the field, with 10 of those made field goals being scored in the paint. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who was returning from a nine-game suspension, criticized SU's forwards — a mixture of Tyler Lydon, Tyler Roberson and Malachi Richardson — for not dropping lower into the paint quickly enough on several defensive possessions. He said they made that mistake "about five times."
"You can't do that and win," said Boeheim. "... There's just no excuse for that. We have to do better in those situations."
Consistently down the stretch, the Tar Heels managed to bypass Syracuse guards Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije and get the ball in the high post. That's when most of the Orange's defensive breakdowns occurred, with North Carolina having little trouble moving the ball from that area to an open big man near the basket.
Johnson was particularly effective passing out of the high post. Including the one to Hicks, he registered five assists in those final eight minutes and 15 seconds, the last of which went to Justin Jackson with 1:27 to play and gave UNC a 77-69 lead, seemingly putting the final nail in Syracuse's coffin.
"In a close game down the stretch, if you're giving up (those baskets), that's a bad thing to have," Gbinije said. "We just have to continue to tighten up on the defensive end late in the games."
North Carolina's closing run was the last in a game full of them. In all, there were 16 lead changes, with each team taking turns responding to punches with counterpunches. But UNC's final punch was the strongest, and it was enough to drop Syracuse to 10-7 overall and 0-4 in ACC play.
The game's end was a familiar one for the Orange, who have consistently blown chances to win games since the start of the conference season. Against Pittsburgh on Dec. 30, Syracuse led 43-35 with 13:08 to play before the Panthers finished the game on a 37-18 run. Three days later, Syracuse and Miami were tied with five minutes to play before the Hurricanes finished the game on a 20-7 run. Then, against Clemson on Tuesday, the Orange led by four points with a minute to play but would go on to lose in overtime.
It's a growing concern for SU, which, in crunch time, seems to tighten up just as its opponent presses the gas pedal. And with Syracuse's NCAA Tournament hopes waning by the game, it's something the Orange would be wise to fix sooner rather than later.
Said Boeheim: "We're going to try. ... We have a lot of hard work ahead of us."