UNC basketball showed it can take the pain. Now, can it be patient against Syracuse?

It’s not conjecture to say North Carolina’s win over NC State on Saturday was just the type of game it would have lost earlier in the season, because the Tar Heels did lose a similar game back in November.

Iowa State played as physically defensively as the Wolfpack, and the Tar Heels didn’t quite know how to handle it in their first loss of the season back in the Phil Knight Invitational. Carolina (14-6, 6-3 ACC) is showing itself to be a different team now, and its 80-69 victory over the Pack is proof.

Heading into Tuesday’s game at Syracuse (13-7, 6-3), the Heels look to continue to prove their growth. They’ve only won one true road game so far this season, their 80-59 victory at last-place Louisville. The Orange are one of five teams tied in a logjam for third place in the ACC standings.

Syracuse presents a different kind of challenge: Carolina has yet to play a team this season that relies so heavily on playing zone defense. But what UNC coach Hubert Davis has found as his team has won nine of its past 11 games, is it has found the right ways to respond.

The Pack’s defensive pressure had Carolina starting its offense “pretty much at half court” for most possessions. Davis added that the game was “extremely physical” as “every cut, every move was met with a body and shoulder and elbow.”

“We had to not only match that physicality, but we had to be able to execute on both ends of the floor through that and I felt like throughout the game we got more used to it,” Davis said. “I think at the beginning of the game was like, ‘Man, these guys are good. They’re physical.’ And I felt like throughout the game we got better and better at attacking them on both ends and just allowed us to be able to win.”

Carolina shot just 37 percent from the field against the Pack, which marked its second worst shooting performance this season. It was the worst the Heels shot in a win — the previous low was 38.3 percent against Gardner-Webb.

“They did a great job of coming in here and pressuring us and kind of taken us out of what we wanted to do a little bit,” UNC forward Pete Nance said. “But we have the players and ability to kind of play any kind of game.”

Davis indicated junior forward Puff Johnson missed Saturday’s game with a sore knee suffered on a non-contact play in practice. Davis said on Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference that Johnson could play.

The Heels could use an extra shooter like Johnson against Syracuse. The Orange have a way of lulling opponents into taking 3-point shots when they don’t have an easy entry point to penetrate their zone.

Davis wasn’t very pleased with Carolina taking 29 3-point attempts against Boston College and they launched 13 in the first half against N.C. State. He said after the game he was much more satisfied when they only took five 3s in the second half because they were patient and selective with their shots.

“It just shows how composed and how poised we are, because they did extend the pressure to try to get us out of offense,” UNC guard Caleb Love said. “We waited to take the shots that we wanted on offense.”

They’ll need to stay poised against the Orange. And Davis believes they are trending in the right direction.

“The biggest thing that that we have done this year that that we have to get better at is staying on script,” Davis said. “Just doing the things that we have practiced in practice, talked about in practice, drilled in practice and not go off script. I feel like we’re starting to get better at that. But we still have to continue to improve and also be consistent in that area.”

Tipoff time + TV channel for Tuesday’s game

The game will start at 9 p.m. on Tuesday and will air on ESPN.

How to stream UNC vs Syracuse game online

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ESPN is available on fuboTV, Hulu + Live TV and YouTubeTV. Or click here to view on the ESPN app.

Game day details: UNC vs Syracuse

Teams: UNC Tar Heels vs. Syracuse Orange

Where: JWA Wireless Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Date: Tuesday, Jan. 24

Time: 9 p.m.


Series history: The Tar Heels lead the overall series 15-6. Carolina the lone meeting last season, an 88-79 overtime victory in Chapel Hill on Feb. 28, 2022.