No. 1 UNC takes down No. 10 Syracuse in the Final Four to set up a date with No. 2 Villanova in the national title game
Get all of David Gardner’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Syracuse and UNC were locked in a tight battle for much of the first half, with neither team leading by more than three points for nearly 13 minutes. Syracuse benefited from UNC’s worst first-half three-point shooting performance of the season: The Tar Heels went 0 for 10 from beyond the arc. Nonetheless, the Heels were able to close the first half on a 21–10 run and went to the locker room with an 11-point advantage. Junior forward Kennedy Meeks, who scored just 18 points combined in the Tar Heels’ two victories over the Orange this season, led all scorers with nine points on four shots in the first half.
Syracuse got to within seven points after a three-pointer from freshman guard Malachi Richardson with 9:51 remaining in the game. Through its five games in the Big Dance to date, North Carolina has trailed for a total of 50 seconds. Its last deficit against Syracuse was with 10:29 left in the first half. Syracuse’s Trevor Cooney led all scorers with 22 points, but needed 18 shots to reach that total. North Carolina offered a more balanced offense, with four players in double figures. Senior forward Brice Johnson and sophomore wing Justin Jackson led the Heels with 16 points apiece, and North Carolina prevailed 83–66.
Why it matters
Midnight has struck for the NCAA tournament’s last Cinderella, although Syracuse didn’t really fit into the traditional role of an underdog that had captured the nation’s attention. The Orange are led by the longest tenured coach in college basketball, the 71-year-old Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim, who took over the program in 1976. They had been to a Final Four as recently as 2013, and they banned themselves from the postseason a year ago for a decade’s worth of infractions. Despite all that, and despite the thinnest bench in the tournament, Syracuse kept surviving and kept advancing. It overcame double-digit deficits to beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and Virginia in the Elite Eight, but there was no such comeback in the works against North Carolina.
The Tar Heels’ win sets up a title game of blue-chip teams. Carolina has a chance to bring home its sixth national championship, which would put it third place alltime behind only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (8). Perhaps most importantly to Tar Heels’ fans, it would break them out of a deadlock with archrival Duke—for at least a season. Villanova will have a chance to become the 15th school to win multiple national championships and the first to join the multi-title club since Louisville in 2013.
Another national title would also be meaningful for Roy Williams. A third title would move him ahead of UNC legend Dean Smith, who was Williams’s friend and mentor, and who died last February. Williams would become just the sixth coach to win three national championships. Although Williams has said that moving ahead of Smith in any metric is uncomfortable for him, he will be missed almost as much as Smith when he eventually retires.
The Tar Heels will take on Villanova for the national championship on Monday night at 9:18 p.m. ET on TBS. It will be the North Carolina’s 10th time playing for a championship. The Heels are 5–4 in national-title games, and won their most recent trophy in 2009.
North Carolina and Villanova have met five times in the NCAA tournament since 1985. The Tar Heels lost to the Wildcats in the 1985 South regional final but have beaten them since in the second round in 1991, the Sweet 16 in 2005 and the national semifinals in ’09.