As North Carolina fans loaded up outside the Greensboro Coliseum in-between the afternoon and night games of the ACC Tournament’s second game, the entire sports world hung in the balance.
NCAA leaders discussed a March Madness without fans, while the NBA shut the groundwork for what would ultimately become the final day of its postponed season. With leagues and governments grappling with an exponentially-growing coronavirus threat, the Syracuse Orange found themselves eerily playing in what could be the last major sports event in front of fans for the foreseeable future.
The Orange, with uncertainty of how anything in the basketball world could change within hours, never mind days, locked in. With 10 minutes remaining Joseph Girard III tossed Bourama Sidibe a lob to secure his double-double. Sidibe tossed Marek Dolezaj a pass for a hanging layup the next possession. Syracuse toyed with a North Carolina team they hadn’t defeated since 2014 and dropped eight straight games against — securing a spot in day three with a 81-53 blowout.
Elijah Hughes traveled with Syracuse to Greensboro as SU sent students home until at least Mar. 30 back on campus. His uncertainty after missing Sunday’s game against Miami quickly became as certain as anything in the world on Wednesday. He drilled a three alongside a pair of Dolezaj finishes inside to push SU ahead 7-0 within 70 seconds.
It never felt close after. Hughe scored eight straight points over the next five minutes as Syracuse’s lead extended to double-figures, while the zone rotated as seamlessly as it had all season. UNC hit two shots inside, with 12 minutes remaining in the half, then the Orange forced seven straight misses.
Jim Boeheim funneled minutes to Howard Washington and Brycen Goodine, who quickly recorded a steal and score inside. That provided Girard and Buddy Boeheim relief toward what became the game-sealing burst toward halftime.
Cole Anthony and Leaky Black pulled North Carolina within four with 6:47 remaining, then Quincy Guerrier entered to score on three of the Orange’s next four possessions to go ahead 29-22. Anthony then elbowed Sidibe in the face in a fight for a loose ball, drawing a flagrant one foul and setting Sidibe off for his best night with the Orange.
Sidibe hit both free throws, Boeheim drilled a jumper on the follow-up possession. Then Sidibe got back to the line on an offensive rebound. The Orange forced two straight turnovers, as Guerrier hit a layup that Girard followed with a three. Sidibe and Guerrier closed out two more possessions at the rim as Hughes hit two straight jumpers to push the Orange’s run to 15-0.
Roy Williams called the half his worst ever as a coach, as North Carolina set off on the short trip home to close perhaps its worst season in program history. Syracuse pushed its lead to 30 into the closing minutes.
Hughes scored 27 points on 9-for-20 shooting, reminding the state of North Carolina his legitimacy among the ACC’s best this season. Sidibe recorded 12 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and two blocks as the front court provided 32 points.
Syracuse moves on to play a Louisville team that also battered them in February at 9 p.m. tomorrow. They’ll play in front of an empty crowd save for a few families and close friends.
That stuck in the player’s minds as hands outstretched from fans tried to reward their best game of a difficult season. They all begrudgingly ignored them as they passed into the tunnel, as something bigger than basketball now towers over whatever season they have left.
“It’ll be quieter tomorrow,” Boeheim said.