North Carolina has beaten Michigan State, Kentucky and reigning national champion Louisville in this up-and-down season, but the Tar Heels were no match for No. 2 Syracuse.
A strong start keyed by James Michael McAdoo vanished amid the Orange's flailing arms and diving bodies, and Syracuse beat UNC 57-45 on Saturday in an Atlantic Coast Conference marquee matchup.
Forwards C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant combined for 32 points and 20 rebounds to pace the Orange, who shot a season-low 35 percent (21 of 60) and still won handily, leading by as many as 19 late in the second half.
"They got by and won a game shooting 35 percent," said UNC coach Roy Williams, who dropped to 1-4 against Syracuse in his Hall of Fame career. "The first six or eight or 10 minutes, I thought we were aggressive. We were involved. I thought after that point they were just so much more aggressive than we were. It ends up a 12-point game, but it really was more than a 12-point game.
"They had so much more intensity than we did."
Not at the start.
North Carolina attacked the middle of the Syracuse zone with great success at the outset, with McAdoo hitting a pair of jumpers and J.P. Tokoto another from the foul line as the Tar Heels gained an 8-4 lead in the first 4 minutes.
"We started slow, let McAdoo get in the lane," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Once we got back in front, our defense was good the whole game."
The Orange regrouped after a timeout and went on a 17-5 run keyed by Fair and Grant, who did all the scoring. Fair, who had three early turnovers and was struggling at the start, hit a 3 from the wing and converted three free throws to give Syracuse a 19-15 lead, and two free throws by Grant completed a 10-0 spurt that put the Orange on top to stay, 21-15 at 8:53.
The Tar Heels cooled off in a big way after the solid start, unable to penetrate inside. After Paige converted a three-point play with 13:04 left, UNC got only a fast-break slam dunk by McAdoo, a layup by Nate Britt and a jumper in the lane by Leslie McDonald in the ensuing 11 minutes and went into the locker room at halftime trailing 34-22.
"For us, not being able to get looks — we were successful early in the game. That's really on us, McAdoo said. "And also them being really good."
Syracuse (16-0, 3-0 ACC) evened its all-time record against the North Carolina (10-6, 0-3) to 4-4. UNC started 0-2 in ACC play three times in the past five years and five times overall, and the loss to Syracuse equaled the worst conference start in school history in 1996-97, Dean Smith's final year as head coach.
The last time North Carolina scored fewer than 45 points was in a 56-44 loss to eventual national champion Villanova in the Southeast Regional final of the 1985 NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels also beat North Carolina State 45-44 in February 1997.
UNC shot 2 of 12 from behind the arc against the Syracuse zone and 20 of 51 (39.2 percent) overall and was outrebounded 41-35, 17-10 on the offensive glass, netting just two second-chance points.
"They were just playing harder," said Tokoto, who finished with three points on 1-of-6 shooting. "That's pretty much what it was. We couldn't knock down the shots we needed to make and go on our run."
The Tar Heels don't play again for a week, when they host Boston College.
"Can't go backwards," Tokoto said. "It's on to the next game. Just got to look at the film, look at what we did wrong as a team, and where we can improve on."
North Carolina was coming off a 63-57 home loss to Miami in which the Tar Heels shot just 31 percent (20 for 65) and finished with a season-low scoring output against Miami's zone.
This game, which featured teams with a combined 3,990 wins (UNC is third with 2,100 and Syracuse fifth with 1,890) was decided by a dominant first half by the Orange.
Tyler Ennis finished with 10 points and seven assists to go with a season-high four turnovers, and Trevor Cooney had five steals and 10 points on 4-of-17 shooting. Rakeem Christmas contributed eight rebounds and had four of the Orange's nine blocks.
Marcus Paige led North Carolina with 17 points and McAdoo had 15 points and nine rebounds.
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