CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The sixth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels couldn’t hold on to a significant double-digit lead and succumbed to the Syracuse Orange 78-73 at Carmichael Arena on Thursday.
Recently named Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Rookie of the Week Diamond DeShields led all North Carolina scorers, finishing with 21 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, and was supported by dual 16-point performances from Stephanie Mavunga (8 rebounds, 5 blocks) and Allisha Gray (9 rebounds, 3 assists).
However, it was Orange guard Brianna Butler’s game-high 22-point performance that included a four-of-nine completion rate from beyond the arc that upstaged the Tar Heels’ collective efforts and ended up making the difference in Syracuse earning the comeback victory.
“I thought the key in this game was the second half,” Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said.
“We got back and got our defense set. We were having major problems just gettin’ back off of made baskets and just gettin’ our defense set.”
Coming into the game, the Tar Heels (17-4, 5-2) were riding a five-game win streak while the Orange (16-5, 5-3) came in as winners of four of their last five.
The two programs had met three times previously with North Carolina winning all of them including the most recent one – a preseason NIT matchup back on Nov. 18, 2007.
The fourth matchup between the two as new ACC opponents turned out to be quite a memorable one.
The Tar Heels poured the ball into the basket during the first half by shooting 17-of-31 and taking advantage of a struggling Syracuse squad that could only convert on 35 percent of its shots.
It didn’t look that it would turn out that way early on.
After the Orange won possession off the tip, Syracuse’s Brittney Sykes (17 points, 4 rebounds) put up the game’s first points.
Both teams came out shooting and Syracuse took an early 9-7 lead after the first three minutes of play.
A pull-up jumper from Brittany Rountree gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the game, 13-11, at the 13:22 mark.
The Tar Heels then dominated play at both ends of the court for the next nine minutes and extended their lead to as much as 18 points.
By halftime, North Carolina led 46-32 and looked to be in total control of the game.
“Carolina really makes you push your principles,” Hillsman said.
“They do a lot of things against your press, against your zone, and they make you make adjustments. We went into halftime and made one adjustment to our zone.”
After adding another six points to its lead early in the second half, North Carolina got into some foul trouble and allowed the Orange to put a few more points on the board from the free throw line.
Leading 52-37, the Tar Heels had to fend off a resurgent Syracuse squad that was slowly gaining momentum in trying to climb back out of the hole they fell into by halftime.
Even while Syracuse whittled the North Carolina lead down to 10 points, the closest they had been in the game since the 9:19 mark of the first half, the Tar Heels continued to keep their distance as Mavunga used a put-back rebound and follow-up free throw to put the Tar Heels back up by 13, leading 60-47 with 13:50 remaining.
“It was a tale of two halves – we shot 47 percent in the second half and 60 percent from three,” Hillsman said.
“It’s no secret. If you shoot those kinds of percentages, you’re gonna’ be successful.”
Syracuse soon put together a 9-1 run led by Butler and Raleigh native Briana Day (11 points, 9 rebounds) to come within five while North Carolina fought to hold onto its lead.
The Tar Heels battled through a seven-minute scoring drought that included an uncharacteristic span of turning the ball over numerous times as well as missing many shots, including open looks from the perimeter.
“I would have never thought this team would have had 28 turnovers,” Tar Heels associate head coach Andrew Calder said.
“That responsibility is on me – of spacing and ball faking and making sure people are in the right spots on the floor to attacking the press. I just have to do a better job.”
Even while Latifah Coleman ended North Carolina’s drought from the field with a three, putting the Tar Heels up 64-60, Bria Day (8 points, 3 rebounds) answered back to bring the score back down to two points.
Both teams continued to trade field goals before the turning point in the game took place.
With 3:11 remaining on the clock and the score tied 67-67, Mavunga blocked a shot attempt by Syracuse’s Alexis Peterson, and after doing so, glared at and spoke in her direction in such a manner which official Dee Kantner judged to be taunting in nature.
Mavunga was assessed a technical foul and the resultant free throws which were made by Butler then gave the Orange the lead 69-67.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” Mavunga said of being assessed the costly foul.
“It was just uncharacteristic of me. I’ve never gotten a technical in my life. It was just the heat of the moment. I was just really excited about the block I guess. I turned around and there was the referee saying I was taunting. It’s just hard that the game really changed right there, for the most part.”
Following the free throws, the Orange also got possession in their end and after bringing it up the floor, Butler drained a three-pointer to further extend the lead to 72-69 with 2:41 to play.
The Tar Heels continued to turn the ball over and Syracuse took advantage of the additional opportunity to push the lead up to five points as Sykes hitting a running jumper.
Gray used a put-back on a missed DeShields three-point attempt to bring the score to within three, and the Tar Heels trailed 74-71.
Butler then connected with another jumper and again extended lead back to five points, 76-71.
More missed field goal attempts from the Tar Heels denied them any further opportunity to get closer other than the successful free throw attempts that DeShields finished the game with.
The Orange completed their comeback with a few more free throws of their own and sealed the victory over North Carolina on its home court.
“We’ve been winning games,” DeShields said.
“Usually in the second half, when it’s a close game, we end up pulling away. This is the first time we had to battle like that. I would say it is a part of the maturing process as far as the team goes. There are some players who handled it maturely, and there are some players who are still workin’ on it. As a team, we still gotta’ get it right, collectively. We should learn from tonight – we shouldn’t dwell on it and be upset about it. Moving forward, we’re just gonna’ improve.”