SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse was doing its best to make coach Jim Boeheim's return something special.

No. 6 North Carolina ruined that idea, pulling away in the final three minutes for an 84-73 victory on Saturday night that spoiled Boeheim coming back from a nine-game suspension for NCAA violations.

The crowd of 26,811 in the Carrier Dome greeted Boeheim with a standing ovation, but once the game started it was all basketball.

"It was a great crowd, great atmosphere," Boeheim said. "We have to make shots and we have to make stops which we did in the first half but the defense was terrible over the last seven, eight minutes."

Isaiah Hicks scored 21 points for North Carolina, which pulled away to its eighth straight win.

"I was glad to see him back," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of Boeheim. "There's no question it gave the crowd a huge emotional lift and his team as well but we were lucky the ball went in the basket for us.

"When I saw his first game back was against the University of North Carolina I wasn't the happiest guy in the world. He's a great coach, a great person. He's been good not only for Syracuse University but also for the entire world of college basketball."

Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson had 16 points apiece for the Tar Heels (15-2, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference). Joel Berry II added 14.

"We did some dumb things but we also made some very good basketball plays, getting the ball in the middle and trying to go high-low, getting the ball in the middle and pitching it back out," Williams said. "Isaiah was big time for us."

It is the first time under Williams that the Tar Heels have opened ACC play with four wins.

"It means we're 4-0 this year with this year's team. That's what it means," Williams said. "All that other stuff is nice. The players noticed it. They said something about it in the locker room. I didn't realize it. It was good. I like it."

Johnson was coming off a 39-point, 23-rebound performance against Florida State. He only had four rebounds against Syracuse, but he had eight assists, most of them when he set up in the middle of the Orange's 2-3 zone and found Jackson and Hicks for dunks and layups.

"Coach said if we kept moving the ball there would be someone open behind the zone and sometimes there was more than one," Johnson said after doubling his previous career high for assists. "We kept our bigs in there and that let us do what we were doing."

Second-leading scorer Marcus Paige had just three points for the Tar Heels but he had eight assists.

Trevor Cooney had 27 points for Syracuse (10-7, 0-4) which went 4-5 without Boeheim and has lost four straight. Malachi Richardson scored 16 points, and Tyler Roberson had 13.

Syracuse was able to stay close for so long by having one of its best rebounding games of the season. The Orange came into the night averaging two rebounds less than their opponents while North Carolina came in at plus-11. Syracuse finished with a 35-33 advantage, including 14-10 on the offensive glass. At halftime Syracuse was up 23-15 on the boards.

"A big key for us in the second half was our rebounding," Williams said.

North Carolina struggled from the outside all game, going 3 of 16 from 3-point range while the Orange went 9 of 31, with Cooney going 5 of 12 and Richardson 4 of 10.

"He's a fierce competitor," Syracuse's Michael Gbinije said of Boeheim. "We wanted to get a win. That would have been a huge win for us with Coach back. We've got to get back on the winning track."

Boeheim's entrance before the game drew a huge ovation, and the man who has been the face of the program for four decades waved several times. Once the game started he was his usual self, complaining to refs, urging his players and often just watching with his arms folded.

"It's not something new for me," Boeheim said of the 0-4 start in the ACC. "There's 14 games left to go. There's a lot of ways to go. We started 0-4 one year and we won 10 games in the league."

TIP-INS

North Carolina: The Tar Heels will have only one more road game in January — Jan. 24 at Virginia Tech. ... The last time North Carolina had a better start in the ACC was 2000-01 when it started 11-0. ... The Tar Heels came into the game having scored at least 80 in 12 straight games and 14 of 16. ... Kennedy Meeks missed seven games with bruised bone in his left knee. He returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday and played against Syracuse, finishing with eight points and two rebounds in 14 minutes. ... North Carolina came in with an 8-2 record in the Carrier Dome — 1-1 vs. Syracuse and 7-1 in NCAA Tournament games.

Syracuse: Gbinije came into the game third in Division I in minutes played, averaging 37.52 per game. Cooney is ninth in minutes at 37.22. ... Coming into the game Gbinije led the team in scoring, 3-pointers, steals and minutes played. He had 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting against North Carolina. ... The Orange had their lowest attendance in 14 years when 16,305 attended the Clemson game last Wednesday. It was the lowest since 14,322 attended the game against Rutgers on Jan. 2, 2002. The crowd Saturday night was announced as 26,811, the largest on-campus crowd in the country this season.

UP NEXT

North Carolina hosts North Carolina State on Saturday.

Syracuse hosts Boston College on Wednesday.