Tar Heels gear up for postseason by locking down Louisville

UNCs workmanlike 74-63 victory opened up a two-game lead in the ACC standings with three games to play while giving the Tar Heels the inside track for the leagues regular season crown

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Feb 22

CHAPEL HILL — College basketball’s postseason is rapidly approaching and North Carolina is rapidly approaching postseason form. The Tar Heels took another step in that familiar direction on Wednesday by once again showing their ability to adjust and win no matter what style of play their opponent wants to throw at them. Four days after winning a slow-paced chess match against Virginia, coach Roy Williams’ eighth-ranked team looked just as comfortable engaging in a physical, high-intensity struggle with No. 7 Louisville in a battle of top 10 teams at the Smith Center. UNC’s workmanlike 74-63 victory opened up a two-game lead in the ACC standings with three games to play while giving the Tar Heels the inside track for the league’s regular season crown. That championship, however, isn’t the one on which point guard Joel Berry and his teammates have their sights set as they work to prepare themselves for another shot at the national title that barely eluded them a year ago. “We have a lot of guys that return from that moment and I think about it all the time,” Berry said of the decisive final play in which Villanova raced the length of the floor for the winning basket in Houston last April. “That’s what’s motivating me to get back to that point, because my ultimate goal is to win a national championship. To be able to do that, this is the time we have to lock in.” The Tar Heels (24-5, 12-3 ACC) appeared to be sufficiently engaged on Wednesday once they got used to the Cardinals’ frenzied pace and the physical nature of the loosely called game. They were especially tough on defense, where they built on a strong performance against Virginia by forcing 16 turnovers and holding Louisville to 5 of 20 shooting from 3-point range. It was an effort that, combined with a dominance of the offensive glass and Louisville’s inability to make a free throw, allowed UNC to overcome some shooting woes of its own. The Tar Heels shot just 37.1, but they pulled down 16 offensive rebounds on the way to an overall 46-33 advantage. “Louisville throws a lot of different stuff at you and you’ve got to adjust. We have a lot of veteran guys and you just have to solve the problem. Once we did, we started clicking.” That didn’t happen right away. The Tar Heels couldn’t seem to get out of their own way early while missing 12 of their first 14 shots, many of them rushed attempts from close range. It took one of coach Roy Williams’ trademark five-man substitutions — with seldom-used reserve Stilman White among the players entering the game — for UNC to begin fighting back. Even then it wasn’t always pretty. The Tar Heels finally put the Cardinals away with 21-6 run over a gritty 10-minute stretch of the second half that saw them expand a precarious 45-43 lead to an insurmountable 17-point cushion with 3:48 remaining. “We just beat a really good team and we shot terrible.” said forward Justin Jackson, who was again the Tar Heels’ catalyst with 21 points. Berry with 15 points, center Kennedy Meeks with 14 points (to go along with 10 rebounds) and Theo Pinson with 13 points also scored in double figures for UNC. “I think that shows we can win in different ways,” Jackson added. “It shows that when we come out to play we can beat a whole lot of teams. They missed some shots for us tonight, but I think we did a really good job of making a play when we really needed to make a play.” They fact that they were able to do it against a top 10 team on a night in which they were forced to play an unnatural style with one of their top players — forward Isaiah Hicks — being held scoreless for the first time since the next-to-last game of his freshman season four years ago is a testament to the evolution of this UNC team. And how dangerous it has the potential to be once the postseason begins less than two weeks from now. “They’re a great team and they’re going to go a long way,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose team fell to 22-6 (10-5). “They’ve got a lot of great days ahead of them.”