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Jan 12, 2024 9:05 am

No. 7 North Carolina brings ‘elite defense’ into clash vs. Syracuse

It’s stacking up as a potential special season for No. 7 North Carolina in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

And the Tar Heels finally get another home game when Syracuse visits Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday afternoon.

First-place North Carolina (12-3, 4-0 ACC) is back home following three straight road games. The Tar Heels are 4-0 in ACC play for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

“Our guys are just gaining strength from being in those situations, and I just really feel like the experience in the early season has given us confidence to be able to step,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

Syracuse (11-4, 2-2) has played just once since losing to Duke on Jan. 2. The Orange scored a 69-59 victory against visiting Boston College.

The Tar Heels have won 12 of 15 meetings with Syracuse since joining in the ACC.

North Carolina has taken significant steps forward defensively this season, something that Davis has pointed out to his team.

“They are playing elite defense,” he said. “They are taking the challenge of winning their individual one-on-one matchups, staying on script in terms of what we have talked about in preparation for each game, boxing out in the rebounds.”

In the Tar Heels’ 67-54 victory at North Carolina State on Wednesday night, the Wolfpack were held to 26.9-percent shooting from the field. That’s the fourth-lowest percentage all-time by a North Carolina opponent in ACC regular-season or tournament play.

“I felt like our guards did a really good job climbing into (NC State’s DJ Horne) and making each one of his shots difficult as well,” Davis said.

Even better for the Tar Heels is that their last two opponents — NC State and Clemson — have shot a combined 3-for-39 on 3-pointers. Syracuse is shooting 32.1 percent on 3s, making 6.8 per game.

On offense, guard RJ Davis averages 20.3 points per game.

Syracuse received 20 points from Chris Bell and Maliq Brown posted 10 of the team’s final 15 points in the Boston College game.

“We didn’t play our best offensive game, but I thought our defense was really good,” coach Adrian Autry said.

Syracuse leads the ACC in steals with 146 after recording 17 on Wednesday night.

Rebounding could become an issue against North Carolina because the Orange played this week’s first game without starting center Naheem McLeod, who was out with an injured right foot. Syracuse’s starting lineup also featured wJ.J. Starling on the court in place of Judah Mintz, who scored 10 points off the bench.

Mintz didn’t start because of what was described as a minor violation of team rules.

“Nothing serious, we have moved on,” Autry said. “I expect him to be ready to go Saturday. I expect him to be (starting vs. North Carolina).”

Without McLeod, Brown needed to be careful as the primary post player for the Orange.

“I was worried about the foul situation,” Autry said. “We got to keep everybody fresh.”

–Field Level Media

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