North Carolina's Brice Johnson blocks a shot by Syracuse's Tyler Roberson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Robert Willett

North Carolina's Brice Johnson blocks a shot by Syracuse's Tyler Roberson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Tar Heels survive spirited Syracuse effort in home finale

By Aaron Beard - Associated Press

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CHAPEL HILL – Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and the rest of North Carolina’s seniors earned one final home win to stay atop the Atlantic Coast Conference. Now the eighth-ranked Tar Heels are headed for a rematch with their fiercest rival and a chance to claim the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.

Johnson had 14 points and 10 rebounds to help UNC hold off Syracuse, 75-70, on Monday night in its home finale.

Joel Berry II added 13 points and two key late free throws for the Tar Heels (24-6, 13-4), who led by 13 points after halftime but had trouble putting the game away against Syracuse’s zone.

But coach Roy Williams didn’t sound too concerned with details. Rather, he was more focused on the emotions of playing the final home game with a senior class that has been at the school through a turmoil-filled time that includes an NCAA investigation into UNC’s long-running academic fraud scandal.

“To me, the day was about winning,” Williams said. “I didn’t care how. I didn’t care if we shot the ball well. I didn’t care if we rebounded well. I just wanted to be able to look up on the clock and see that we had more.”

The Tar Heels were coming off a weekend loss at Virginia as part of a 4-4 stretch against a backloaded February schedule, but they still entered the week tied with No. 7 Miami for first in the ACC. They clinched at least a double-round bye that comes with a top-four seed at the ACC Tournament by beating Syracuse (19-11, 9-8), and can claim at least a share of the regular-season crown and the top seed by winning this weekend at rival Duke – which won here 74-73 roughly two weeks ago.

“Our group has never gone over there and won so we have a lot of motivation,” Paige said. “Now it’s even more meaningful because it’s for a chance to stay on top of the ACC.”

Michael Gbinije scored 17 points for the Orange, who are working to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume after entering the week at No. 55 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings.

Syracuse shot just 41 percent, including 5 of 20 from 3-point range.

“I feel like we put a decent effort out on the court,” Gbinije said. “We obviously could’ve played better. But they could’ve played better as well. I think the effort was there, it just didn’t go our way tonight.”

TIP-INS

UNC: Johnson has an ACC-best 18 double-doubles. ... Kennedy Meeks had 10 points including some big second-half baskets when Johnson and Isaiah Hicks got in foul trouble. ... Paige finished with eight assists but continued his long-running slump by making 2 of 10 shots. ... UNC had a 40-34 rebounding advantage.

CLINCHING PLAYS

Gbinije’s 3-pointer with 2:23 left closed the deficit to 69-68, but Hicks scored inside on the next possession followed by a tough score by Johnson off an offensive rebound. And after Gbinije missed a late drive, Berry hit two free throws with 6.6 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.

UP NEXT

UNC travels to No. 17 Duke in Saturday’s regular-season finale.