HOUSTON — Marcus Paige allowed himself less than a minute — 39 seconds to be precise — to celebrate.
As he, Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Brice Johnson and Joel Berry II checked out of Saturday night’s 83-66 national semifinal win against No. 10-seed Syracuse, Paige let himself exhale and take in the surroundings at the NRG Center.
UNC checked off one more item on the to-do list. But there’s still a big one remaining.
“I took about 45 seconds to cherish that moment,” said Paige, who scored 13 points. “When he subbed in our bench and we got to come out, that was the moment of relaxation and celebration for me, hugging my teammates, telling my teammates, ‘Hey we got one more game.’
“Because our ultimate goal is not to make the final game, it’s to win the final game. You’ve got to happy, satisfied with the way you played and to get to this point. But I’m sure it’ll be a lot more fun if we come in here after a win on a Monday night.”
There was, of course, plenty of reason to celebrate for those 39 seconds. The Tar Heels faced off against ACC foe Syracuse (23-14) for the third time this season, and, for the the third time, UNC walked off the court with a victory.
It was a close game, at least compared to Villanova’s earlier 95-51 thrashing of Oklahoma. The Tar Heels struggled to find any separation early as Syracuse’s zone kept them out of an offensive rhythm.
“They were just a little more aggressive in that zone,” Johnson said. “They weren’t allowing us to get it in the middle of the pass. The first possession when I got the jump shot, I don’t think I touched it in the middle again. It was just a little more aggressive with the guards at the top not allowing us to try to get it in there.”
Initially, UNC settled for 3-point shots, a decision that didn’t pan out as they missed all 10 first-half 3-pointers.
But once the inside game got going, the Tar Heels (33-6) began to find some separation and outscored Syracuse 26-12 in the post en route to a 39-28 halftime lead.
UNC went 6 of 19 in the first 10 minutes of the game, including nine missed 3-pointers. But once the Tar Heels started forcing the ball inside, they went 11 of 16 from the floor and missed just one 3-pointer in the final 10 minutes.
That feat was especially impressive given that UNC leading scorer Brice Johnson sat the final 9:05 with two fouls.
Johnson went to the bench with the scored tied at 16, but keyed by buckets from Berry, Meeks, Jackson and Joel James, UNC went on a 10-2 run and stretched out the lead to nine points.
“I’m really proud of those guys for stepping up, especially Joel,” said Johnson, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. “He really hit some big time shots.”
UNC led Syracuse by 11 at half, but thanks to slack rebounding and turnovers by UNC, Syracuse was able to cut it into single digits on a 3-pointer by Malachi Richardson with 9:48 to go in the second half.
Paige then answered with a 3-pointer of his own — UNC’s first of the game — and stretched the lead back to 10 points.
“There’s no question I got really excited because he had done so many good things and hand’t been able to make a shot,” coach Roy Williams said. “That was the first 3 our team made. I got a little excited on the sideline after that.”
But after Paige’s shot dropped, Syracuse senior Trevor Cooney answered with another 3 before Pinson drained UNC’s second triple. From there, UNC never led by fewer than 10 points en route to a national championship date Monday night with No. 2 seed Villanova.
There’s no denying that it was the biggest win of the season thus far. With everything on the line, it was the definition of a must-win game. But a bigger one is on the horizon, one that means there’s no time for an extended celebration.
Saturday night’s game was about business, and if everything goes the way UNC hopes, a much bigger party will come a little bit later.
“I’ve got one more,” Johnson said. “I’m not done. We’re not done as a team and I’m not done as a player. I’ve got one more game in college and I’ve got one more game this season. We’ll go out there and give it our all.”