Right now, you have to feel a little bit badly for Rakeem Christmas and Trevor Cooney. I mean, how can you not? Syracuse’s two focal points gave absolutely everything they had against a bigger, deeper North Carolina team, but it still wasn’t enough. The pair, who came to Syracuse together and used to play their AAU ball together in high school, combined to score 60 points on the Tar Heels. And still, it wasn’t enough. The Orange gave Carolina everything they had, but the size of the Heels and the fatigue felt by Syracuse’s core group just proved to be too much to overcome down the stretch in the 93-83 loss.
For the most part, the first half went about as well as Orange fans could have hoped, with the 2-3 zone active in the passing lanes and forcing the No. 13-ranked Tar Heels into an unusually high number of turnovers. And, even better, the Orange were converting those turnovers, turning them into 16 points before halftime rolled around. The fact that Rakeem Christmas was just 1-of-5 in the first half, yet the Orange still held a 40-35 advantage – on the road, mind you – was more than we probably could have hoped for.
But at the end of the day, we probably all knew what was coming. North Carolina got a career day from a kid who had never made more than two threes in a game, as Nate Britt came off the bench to torch the Orange for four triples and 17 points. The size advantage, which I talked about before the game, just proved to be far more than Syracuse could handle as Jim Boeheim’s players got more and more tired, and foul trouble became a serious factor.
Since we’re on the subject of foul trouble, we could obviously take a moment to discuss the refs, but frankly, what good would that do us at this point? Yes, there were some pretty questionable calls and non-calls throughout the game. In one instance, Trevor Cooney was shoved to the ground in a scramble for a loose ball, and no foul was called. In several other instances, Kennedy Meeks bodied his way into the lane, creating basically all of the contact, yet it was Rakeem Christmas, or Tyler Roberson, or Michael Gbinije getting whistled and sending Meeks to the line. And on more than one occasion, Syracuse was called for phantom over the back calls.
We can talk about the questionable job done by the refs, but like I said – it’s kind of a fruitless endeavor. Besides, no matter how bad the officiating, that’s never the only factor in a loss (or in a win, for that matter). The Syracuse players gave a great effort, but there were still too many poorly timed miscues on defense, too many second chance opportunities on the offensive glass for Carolina, and too many missed shots. Hell, as great as Cooney was, he was still just 10-of-26 from the field. Christmas was just 6-of-12, though most of those misses came in the first 30 minutes of game time.
I mentioned the tremendous size advantage that the Tar Heels boasted, and it was evident on the glass. Syracuse did a respectable job competing on the boards in the opening half, but UNC started to take control as they wore down a tired Syracuse squad. By the end of the game, North Carolina out-boarded Syracuse 42-27, and while Syracuse forced UNC into 20 turnovers, that certainly doesn’t mean the Tar Heels weren’t still executing on the offensive end of the floor. Of their 31 made field goals, 22 came off of assists, and once again Syracuse’s occasionally poor interior defense came to the forefront as the Tar Heels worked the ball around the interior for several easy baskets.
And then, of course, there was the uncharacteristically hot three point shooting from North Carolina, a team which entered the game with the fewest three point attempts in the ACC. It was frustrating to watch Marcus Paige – literally the only player on almost any scouting report that would be deemed worthy of the title “three point shooter” – open for multiple three pointers over the course of the game. He wound up knocking down 4-of-7 threes on his way to 22 points, leading the charge for UNC. Not all of those attempts were wide open, but Syracuse simply didn’t do a good enough job keeping track of the most dangerous perimeter scorer on the opposing team.
Nate Britt, however…
What can you say? Syracuse fans, you have a new mortal enemy. Every once in awhile a player emerges from the depths of obscurity to have a career day against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, and tonight that player was Britt. Britt, who as I alluded to had never hit more than two threes in a game, inexplicably knocked down 4-of-5 from long range. Just think – only a few days ago, Britt was considered questionable after a collision against Wake Forest left him with 15 stiches on his lip. You hate to play the “what if” game, but it’s hard not to think about how the game might have turned out had Britt not been on the court.
Of course, I’m not sure it would have made enough of a difference. North Carolina was simply too big, and Syracuse was once again a little too inconsistent. Michael Gbinije started the game hot, making a few great passes and knocking down some shots, but became somewhat invisible during a long stretch in the second half. He still strong all around numbers with 16 points, five assists, and four rebounds, but he was clearly overwhelmed trying to keep the bigger bodies off the glass on defense.
Rakeem Christmas did all he could to keep the Tar Heels off the glass, grabbing 12 boards to go along with his 22 points. Tyler Roberson had a strong overall performance, making some big shots and keeping some balls alive on the glass, but it was a little disappointing to see him end up with only three rebounds. No one outside of Christmas finished the game with more than Gbinije’s four boards, and that’s more a testament to how big and dominant UNC is on the interior than anything else. There certainly wasn’t a lack of hustle and effort. At some point, the opponent is just bigger, and stronger.
I think most of us probably expected to lose this one. I know I certainly did, as much as it pains me to say it. All things considered, it was a valiant effort by a Syracuse team that simply lacked the depth to compete for a full 40 minutes.
Syracuse gets a bit of a respite in the schedule with hopes of righting the ship after having lost three of its last four games. The team is off until February 3, when they host Virginia Tech, followed by road games at Pitt and Boston College. Those are all winnable games, and at this point, they’re games that the Orange absolutely must win to retain even a glimmer of hope for receiving an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight, the Orange showed a hell of a lot of effort and heart, but sometimes those things will only get you so far.