SYRACUSE Jim Boeheim insists this Syracuse team has the potential to be a very good defensive club, perhaps not as good as last seasons Final Four squad but more than consistent enough to compete in its inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Three games into ACC play, the Orange has been among the stingiest in the conference. Saturdays dominant defensive performance in No. 2 SUs 57-45 victory over visiting North Carolina in a Carrier Dome marquee matchup was evidence that this team will be able to win even when it has an off night on the offensive end.
Holding the Tar Heels to a season-low point total, SU (16-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) took control with a devastating late first-half run and led by as much as 18 points with less than four minutes to play.
By far our best defensive effort of the season, said Boeheim, whose club has allowed an average of just 47.3 points in its first three ACC contests. We got loose balls, came up with all the hustle plays and it was our best job on the boards all year against a really good rebounding team.
Forwards C.J. Fair and Jeremi Grant showed the way for SU, which enjoyed a 41-35 rebounding edge. Fair netted 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Grant, starting his third straight game in place of DaJuan Coleman, scored all 12 of his points in the first half and also snagged a career-high 12 rebounds for his third double-double of the season.
The Orange shot just 35 percent from the floor, including 4-for-19 from 3-point range. But SU more than made up for its inaccuracy by chasing down almost every loose ball, fighting to keep possessions alive on the boards and making enough plays on offense to keep the Tar Heels (10-6, 0-3) at bay.
Youve got to give it to Syracuse, said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. They were more aggressive, more assertive and just played harder and smarter than we did today.
The Tar Heels have now tied their worst ACC start in school history.
Before the largest on-campus crowd of the season, North Carolina kept the 32,121 fans mostly silent through the opening eight minutes. James Michael McAdoo scored 10 of the Tar Heels first 15 points and UNC seized a 15-11 lead.
But when the SU 2-3 zone shut McAdoo down (he did not score again in the half), North Carolina had no offensive answers and the Orange started pulling away.
A Grant drive began what turned into an eventual 21-3 run for SU over the next nine minutes. Grant had eight points and Fair six during the spurt, and the Orange defense did not allow a point for four minutes during one stretch and more than three minutes in another as the SU lead burgeoned to 32-18.
Defense always triggers the offense, Grant said. Everybody came together.
Rakeem Christmas and reserve center Baye Moussa Keita combined for eight blocked shots and grabbed 13 rebounds between them to help out the interior defense. SU outscored UNC 12-2 on second-chance points.
Leading 34-22 at halftime, SU went scoreless for the first 2 ½ minutes of the second half until Trevor Cooney finally hit his first 3-pointer of the game after missing his first seven.
That triggered another sustained Orange offensive spurt, which ultimately led to SU surging to a 55-36 lead with 6:40 to play and all but close the door on a North Carolina comeback.
Cooney finished with 10 points on 4-for-17 shooting.
I dont worry about missing shots, Cooney said. Having another game Monday (at Boston College) helps me forget about those quickly.
Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis had a season-high four turnovers. But he contributed 10 points and seven assists for the Orange.
North Carolina, led by Marcus Paige with 17 points and McAdoo with 15, went just 2-for-12 from 3-point range and 20-for-51 from the floor.
We attacked their zone well early, and then they adjusted, said Williams, whose team had already beaten Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky.
The last time SU started 16-0 was in 2011-12 when it won the first 20 games. This marks the third time in four years it has at least reached that mark.
nNOTES: The game not only featured two of the top five winningest teams in Division I history (UNC third, 2,100, SU fifth, 1,890), it had two of the active winningest coaches. SUs Boeheim is second with 936 wins and UNCs Williams ranks fourth with 710. North Carolina had not scored as few points since beating North Carolina State 45-44 during the 1997 season. The 45 points also marked the fewest number of points scored in the Williams era (11 seasons). Watertowns Matt Gorman, who played on the 2003 national championship squad, was among the SU alumni introduced at halftime.