The Syracuse Orange led previous No. 1 Duke and current No. 5 North Carolina at halftime in the previous two games. Both of those halves shared attributes: SU scored methodically through good perimeter looks, defended intensely around the rim. But an elite opponent still stood within a handful of possessions.
Both times, the Orange collapsed mightily the second half. Both involved free throw struggles by Syracuse. Both times an offense that shot over 50 percent in the first 20 minutes settled.
The loss, combined with Virginia Tech’s upset of Duke, hurt SU’s potential seeding in the ACC Tournament. It also leaves the Orange with one guaranteed opportunity at a marquee win against Virginia before Selection Sunday.
Some of the biggest takeaways from the game:
Elijah Hughes lost control
Hughes dropped 15 points on UNC’s head in the first half, all coming around the three-point arc and one off a loose rebound that landed in his hands with miles of space. That fortune didn’t greet SU in the second half, nor did Hughes’ approach put them in position to get lucky.
In the second half, Hughes opened the first four minutes heaving two threes, one contested and the next a long attempt that resulted in an air ball. He later missed two free throws, committed a turnover and fouled out of the game.
His early shooting offset the pressure North Carolina’s defense placed on Tyus Battle, but he largely became uninvolved in the Orange offense in the final 16 minutes of the game.
Defense shined but rebounding did not
In a crucial second-half sequence, UNC grabbed two offensive rebounds during one possession where Syracuse tipped the ball out to the perimeter. It ended with Cameron Johnson drilling a corner three that spaced the Tar Heels ahead 74-69 with nine minutes remaining.
North Carolina grabbed 18 offensive rebounds in the game to Syracuse’s eight. Many came with SU getting an initial hand on the ball but UNC finishing with the possession. On a night where the Orange held Luke Maye to 2-for-12 shooting, Nassir Little to 2-for-9 and the UNC offense to 40 percent shooting, the second chances still allowed the Tar Heels to post 93 points — exceeding their top-ranked ACC scoring average.
Paschal Chukwu helpful but Marek Dolezaj essential
Dolezaj fouled out late in the second half, swamped in foul trouble like many Orange in the game, but once again showcased his essential role in SU’s offense.
He hit all three of his attempts from the field to score eight points in a continuation of his scoring bump. He dropped 10 against Duke and NC State, seven against Boston College and six against Louisville over the Orange’s recent stretch. Before that he hadn’t exceeded five points in the eight previous games.
While his activity and passing provide an impact that exceeds stats, in Jim Boeheim’s words, Dolezaj hadn’t added much to Syracuse’s scoring total this season. He started for a stretch, before Boeheim turned back to Chukwu after his dominant performance in the road Duke game.
The two shared the court for significant stretches against UNC, but Boeheim has typically leaned on one or the other. Foul trouble across the roster certainly mixed up rotations on Tuesday. They grabbed two offensive rebounds each, with Chukwu adding a steal and 2-for-2 shooting.
As Brent Axe always points out, free throws can be vitally important and they were certainly here again for (and against) Syracuse. The Orange hit just 13-of-23, while North Carolina nailed 34 of 37. Much was made of the disparity at the line — especially in the first half — but the more jarring comparison is how poorly SU shot it from the charity stripe once again.
Tyus Battle had 11 of the team’s 13 makes. Oshae Brissett was 0-for-5. Elijah Hughes was 0-for-2. Part of that’s certainly influenced by the team’s lack of driving inside for much of the contest. But really... your starters can’t miss like that from the line if you want to pull off an upset like this. Even making half of those tries changes the game considerably.