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It took an upper-level brawl on Thursday night to wake up the Madison Square Garden crowd before Ohio State's furious rally against North Carolina's forced people out of their seats. But Friday's scuffle behind the 8th Avenue basket was a mere blip on the crowd's radar, thanks to an electrifying display on the court that rivaled postseason flare.
Both programs ratcheted up the intensity as soon as the ball was tipped, delivering excitement for a boisterous crowd that may as well have been a home setting for the Orange. North Carolina (4-1) rallied from a nine-point deficit twice before entering halftime with a 39-37 lead, but Syracuse owned the second stanza out of the gates.
Ed Davis led the Tar Heels with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Marcus Ginyard added 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and five turnovers. Wesley Johnson directed Syracuse's offensive display with 25 points and eight rebounds. Arinze Onuaku contributed 15 points and seven rebounds, while Andy Rautins added 11 points, seven assists, seven rebounds and seven steals.
North Carolina shot 38.1 percent (24-of-63) against Syracuse's 54.4 percent (37-of-68, 9-of-21 on 3-pointers). The Tar Heels won the rebounding battle, 42-37.
INSIDE THE GAME
The Orange's Knockout Punch
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. Joe Louis vs. Rocky Marciano. Roberto Duran vs. Ken Buchanan. The Garden has hosted some of the most memorable boxing matches in the sport's history.
On Friday night, the Orange did their best to replicate a prize-fight quality knockout blow to start the second half. Syracuse had already used two runs in the opening half to open up a lead against North Carolina – first to start the game at 11-2 and then a 12-2 spurt to build a 31-22 margin.
The Tar Heels got up off the mat both times and retook the lead. But a third knockdown left UNC clinging to the ropes.
The Orange drilled 11 of their first 15 shots after intermission en route to a 25-3 run that gave Jim Boeheim's squad a commanding 62-42 lead with 11:42 to play.
North Carolina didn't help matters. Drew and Ginyard shot back-to-back air balls from long range on UNC's first two possessions, and then two poor passes resulted in turnovers on the following two possessions. In all, the Tar Heels missed their first 13 field goal attempts of the second half, coughed up five turnovers, allowed two jump-ball tie-ups on their side of the floor and then David Wear added a third air ball for good measure.
"The second half for us was about as bad as you could play – I would hope we can't play worse than that," Williams said. "… The first four possessions of the second half we don't have a shot to hit the rim."
Finding a Second Scoring Option
If there's one thing that was known about this North Carolina team since the offseason, it's that Deon Thompson was destined to be the No. 1 option on the offensive end of the floor. The senior forward entered Friday's game averaging 17 points on 52 percent shooting.
But Syracuse keyed on Thompson early, holding him to six points and only five field goal attempts in the opening 20 minutes. The Torrance, Calif. native finished with 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting, and those statistics were obvious in considering UNC's 71 total points.
"It was definitely that zone," Thompson replied when asked how the Orange were able to shut him down. "You've just got to find the right way to attack a zone. When your shot is not falling from the high post, it's hard to attack a zone. That's where you really want to look to score on a zone as a big. And when you're not hitting shots from there, it makes it tough."
What's troubling is that Davis and Ginyard – UNC's defensive specialists – have been forced to carry the extra offensive load. If the Tar Heels have dreams of a repeat trip to the Final Four, someone else is going to have to step up and provide some scoring. Will Graves showed flashes early, contributing eight points in the first five minutes, but those were his only points of the night.
With North Carolina trailing 47-40 nearly four minutes into the second half, Williams subbed in for Graves, Ginyard and Thompson. The new lineup consisted of John Henson, Dexter Strickland, Justin Watts, Tyler Zeller and Davis. Not exactly a unit that's going to scare any opponent – at least at this point of the season – but the starters can't play 40 minutes a game.
Defending a Small Lineup
There are two things that North Carolina will encounter all season long – zone defenses and small lineups. Syracuse employs arguably the toughest matchup zone in the country, and when Boeheim went with a small lineup in the second half, the Tar Heels struggled.
"When they subbed and put Wesley at the 4-spot, we didn't have an answer for guarding him," Williams said. "His quickness and his ability to shoot the 3-point shot and take it to the basket – we didn't have an answer for matching up with that."
According to Thompson, there is only one way to defend the small lineup approach.
"Take pride in it," Thompson said. "Take pride in the defensive side. Strap up and play defense. That's what it boils down to. You can't draw up any tricky schemes to try to counter what they do. Just have some pride and step up and play defense."