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No comeback for Syracuse this time as UNC dominates inside

North Carolina's Brice Johnson, who had 16 points

North Carolina's Brice Johnson, who had 16 points and nine rebounds, gets an uncontested dunk in the first half. The Tar Heels beat Syracuse, 83-66, in the national semifinals Saturday night in Houston. Credit: Getty Images / Chris Steppig

HOUSTON — Syracuse did its best to fashion a third straight comeback shocker when it cut a 17-point North Carolina lead down to seven points with 9:48 left to play in the national semifinals Saturday night at NRG Stadium. But the powerful Tar Heels dispatched their ACC brothers just as easily as they have everyone else in what turned into an 83-66 blowout.

The Tar Heels (33-6) will face Villanova (34-5) in the championship game Monday night. But even though the improbable run by the Orange (23-14) ended after it became the first 10th seed to reach the Final Four, coach Jim Boeheim, who served a nine-game suspension as a result of NCAA sanctions at the start of the ACC schedule, counted this as his most satisfying season short of the national title he won in 2003.

“I told the players I’m more proud of this team than any team I’ve coached,” Boeheim said. “This team battled through an awful lot of things . . . It would have been very easy to have a horrendous year this year with all things considered. They battled every game.”

Referring to comeback victories over Gonzaga and Virginia in their previous two games to become the fourth double-digit seed to reach the Final Four, Boeheim said they should have lost those two games based on how far behind they were, adding: “They wouldn’t let that happen. They made some unbelievable plays.”

That’s what was needed when North Carolina built a 57-40 second-half lead. And for a few minutes, it seemed as if Syracuse might pull another rabbit out of a hat. Senior Trevor Cooney, who had 22 points, started a 10-0 run with a three-pointer and fast-break dunk, and when Malachi Richardson (17 points) added a layup and hit a three, the Orange had cut the deficit to 57-50 with 9:48 remaining.

Plenty of time for yet another comeback, but the Tar Heels had seen that story before and were having none of it. They responded with a 10-3 push that included their first threes of the game from Marcus Paige and Theo Pinson for a 67-53 cushion. The Orange never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.

“The two biggest baskets of the game were when they cut it to seven and Marcus makes a three and Theo hit a three right behind him,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson, who had 16 points and nine rebounds, said he expected Syracuse to press after falling behind by 17 and try to speed up the game. “We did a great job with a lot of poise and didn’t turn the ball over,” Johnson said.

Carolina proved too strong on the inside, where Johnson’s scoring was supported by Justin Jackson (16) and Kennedy Meeks (15 and eight rebounds). Paige added 13 points for the Heels, who shot 53.8 percent from the field and outscored Syracuse in the paint, 50-32.

Boeheim said before the game that he wasn’t especially confident in his team’s full-court press even though it was a key factor in the comebacks against Gonzaga and Virginia, and he especially didn’t believe he could press a veteran Carolina team successfully for very long.

“I don’t think we can press this team,” Boeheim said after Saturday night’s loss. “If I’m on top of the Empire State Building, I don’t have to jump to know it’s going to hurt. But we had to [press]. We first pressed when we got it down to seven. We were trying to get a couple steals to get it down. It wasn’t a realistic expectation.”

Carolina was too good, and soon, the rout was on. But the final score didn’t dim Boeheim’s sense of satisfaction. “I’m happier at the end of this year than any time I’ve ever coached,” Boeheim said. “I’m really not that tired. I had 30 days off.”

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