HOUSTON — North Carolina’s latest step on the way to a title was shaping up as strictly an inside job.
Out of nowhere, Marcus Paige figured out how to hit from 3-point land, and the Tar Heels put an end to any hopes of another Syracuse comeback.
Using layups, floaters and putbacks — then, finally, three very timely 3-pointers from Paige — the Tar Heels outmuscled Syracuse 83-66 on Saturday to move a win away from the program’s sixth national title.
Paige finished with 13 points, and Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson led North Carolina (33-6) with 16 apiece as the Tar Heels, the lone No. 1 seed in the Final Four, beat Jim Boeheim’s 10th-seeded Orange for the third time this season and advanced to Monday’s title game against Villanova.
Earlier, the Wildcats made 11-of-18 shots from behind the 3-point line in a 95-51 win over Oklahoma to debunk the theory that nobody could shoot in Houston’s cavernous stadium.
Then the Tar Heels, ranked 284th in the country this season from long range, reversed that one-game trend. They bricked up 3-pointer after 3-pointer, going 0-for-10 in the first half and barely drawing iron on some of them. Paige opened the second half with North Carolina’s 11th straight miss, and for the next 10 minutes, the Tar Heels basically ignored the 3-point line.
Only when Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson triggered a 10-0 Syracuse run to trim a 17-point deficit to seven did Carolina start thinking long range again. Paige made three 3-pointers, and Theo Pinson hit another to stifle the rally and make Carolina almost respectable from the 3-point line: 4-for-17 for the game.
“We had a brain lapse there for about three minutes in the second half, but other than that I thought we were really good defensively against a team that’s hard to guard,” said Carolina coach Roy Williams, in search of his third title.
Kennedy Meeks finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, including a paddy cake putback after batting a second offensive rebound to himself off glass. That gave the Heels a 67-53 lead.
Before Paige found his range, Carolina built its lead on the inside, with big-time help from an in-your-face defense that held Syracuse’s leading scorer Michael Gbinije to 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting.
“We didn’t have to play perfect, but we had to shoot better tonight,” Boeheim said.
The Orange went 8-for-25 from 3-point range.
In all, North Carolina offered a reminder of the days before the 3-point shot was invented, when the way to really beat a zone — and Boeheim’s 2-3 is the best in the game — was to make blink-of-an-eye passes in and around the paint and crash the offensive glass to take advantage of a defense that doesn’t put bodies on bodies when the ball goes up.
That plan still works.
Early in the second half, Jackson made a jump pass from the corner to the lane, where Paige was waiting and batted the ball with an open hand over to Meeks, who dunked.
A bit later, Joel Berry got an easy offensive rebound and a layup to put the Tar Heels ahead by 17.
North Carolina finished with 16 second-chance points on 16 offensive boards.
Even more telling were points in the paint: Tar Heels 50, Orange 32.
Syracuse trailed by 16 in its crazy comeback victory over Virginia last week to make it here.
But there was no full-court press that could beat the Heels, and no meltdown awaiting from them either.
Cooney led the Orange (23-14), the first No. 10 seed to make it to the Final Four, with 22 points.
Richardson had 17, but after his 3 trimmed the deficit to seven with 9:48 left, Syracuse couldn’t pull closer.
“I’m more proud of this team than ... of any team I’ve coached,” Boeheim said. “This team battled through an awful lot of things.”
Namely, it was Boeheim’s nine-game suspension in the wake of NCAA troubles that made the early season a soap opera.
North Carolina is facing an NCAA investigation of its own, one that has taken a toll on Williams.
That can wait until after Monday, though, when Villanova will be the only thing on North Carolina’s mind.
“Enjoy the Dickens out of it until midnight,” Williams said, “and then worry about that other team.”
North Carolina: Meeks missed only two shots and tipped both of them back to himself. His line for the last two games: 11 for 13 from the field with 11 rebounds. ... Overall, Carolina outrebounded Syracuse 43-31.
Syracuse: Boeheim on whether he’s considering retirement: “Why do you guys always ask me that? Make sure you ask Roy.”
North Carolina: Monday vs. Villanova for the program’s sixth title.
Syracuse: Season over.