Brice Johnson -- who had 10 huge rebounds addressing the crowd on senior night. Big win tonight 75-70 pic.twitter.com/A2dH83n6BY— Joe Mazur (@joemazurabc11) March 1, 2016
Joel Berry II added 13 points and two key late free throws for the Tar Heels (24-6, 13-4 Atlantic Coast Conference), who led by as many as 13 points after halftime but had plenty of trouble putting the game away against Syracuse's zone.
UNC led by just a point near the 2-minute mark, but Isaiah Hicks and Johnson came up with big baskets to help the Tar Heels stay in control. Berry's two free throws with 6.6 seconds left made it a two-possession game, helping UNC hang on to first place in the ACC.
.@marcuspaige5 may have shot 2-10 tonight but he hit a grand slam with his senior speech. Memorable last time on the Smith Center floor— Joe Mazur (@joemazurabc11) March 1, 2016
Michael Gbinije scored 17 points to lead the Orange (19-11, 9-8), who shot 41 percent and made 5 of 20 3-point tries.
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 atop the league, and can claim at least a share of the regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in next week's ACC Tournament by beating rival Duke on Saturday.
Roy addressing the crowd says "this might be my favorite team of all time". pic.twitter.com/v04FKvnQqf— Joe Mazur (@joemazurabc11) March 1, 2016
The Tar Heels didn't attack the Orange's zone with the same efficiency as in a January road win, shooting 41 percent while firing 25 shots from behind the arc despite being one of the ACC's worst in 3-point shooting percentage.
But Johnson came up with several big plays during a critical sequence that saw the Orange get within three points with 7 minutes left, then helped the Tar Heels turn away one more burst from Syracuse that set up a suddenly tense finish.
Gbinije hit a huge 3 to close the gap to 69-68 with 2:23 left, but he missed a drive in the final seconds with Syracuse down three to set up Berry's late free throws in what amounted to the Orange's last gasp.
Syracuse: Cooney finished with 14 points. ... Gbinije had seven assists and seven turnovers. ... Syracuse finished with 15 turnovers that UNC converted into 14 points. ... Syracuse made 19 of 23 free throws.
UNC: Kennedy Meeks had 10 points including some big second-half baskets when Johnson and Hicks got in foul trouble. ... Marcus Paige finished with eight assists. ... UNC had a 40-34 rebounding advantage, including 19-12 on the offensive glass.
Syracuse closes the regular season at Florida State on Saturday.
UNC travels to No. 17 Duke in Saturday's regular-season finale.
Report a Typo