Tar Heels take care of business in ACC Tournament opener

UNC gets big games from its three best players on the way to a workmanlike 83-70 quarterfinal win against Louisville

Coby White drives past Louisville's Steven Enoch on the way to two of his 19 points in UNC's ACC tournament victory on Thursday (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE — Roy Williams is fond of using golf analogies when describing situations involving his North Carolina basketball team.

There’s one in particular that can be applied to the ACC Tournament.

You can’t win the championship in the opening round, but you can certainly lose it.

With that in mind, Williams’ second-seeded Tar Heels did exactly what they needed to do Thursday in their first game of what they hope will be three in three nights. They got big scoring efforts from their three best players, controlled the boards and played solid defense on the way to a workmanlike 83-70 quarterfinal win against No. 7 Louisville at Spectrum Center.

The win was UNC’s eighth straight and 15th in its last 16 games, and it advances the Tar Heels into Friday’s semifinals and a highly anticipated third meeting with rival Duke.

“We can play so much better,” said senior guard Kenny Williams, who left himself plenty of room for personal improvement by going 1 for 8 from the floor. “We had lulls and mental lapses and they made their runs, but we also did some good things. Just to start this first postseason game, I think that’s a good starting point and something we can build on.”

The Tar Heels (27-5) didn’t wait long to establish their dominance.

First-team All-ACC selection Cameron Johnson got UNC started by scoring 10 of his team’s first 16 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Then freshman point guard Coby White took over, slashing to the basket on consecutive possessions to keep the momentum going.

By the time Luke Maye got into the act, hitting back-to-back buckets midway through the period, the Tar Heels had opened up a 34-21 lead and appeared to be cruising.

Until they momentarily took their foot off the gas.

“We came out early and punched them in the mouth,” Maye said. “Basketball is a game of runs and they battled back. But coach got on us a little bit and it kind of got us going.”

The rally Maye referenced was a 12-0 run in which three different Cardinals — Jordan Nwora, Darius Perry and Dwayne Sutton — each hit 3-pointers within a 90-second stretch.

But just as quickly, UNC turned things around and gained control. A White 3-pointer from the left corner halted the Louisville momentum and sent the Tar Heels on to an 11-2 spurt of their own over the next 5:20 to re-establish the double-digit lead into halftime.

“I think our transition defense got better,” White said of the quick turnaround. “We went through a little spurt where it was bad and we weren’t getting picked up and they were knocking down open shots. So we locked in and got stops down the stretch.”

White did more than contribute to a defense that held the Cardinals (20-13) to 40 percent shooting overall and 11 of 36 from 3-point range.

Although he didn’t shoot well, making just one of his seven 3-pointers, the ever-improving rookie still managed to flirt with a triple-double before finishing with 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists while committing only one turnover.

His quickness and aggressive drives to the rim for either baskets or to set up teammates helped keep the tempo to UNC’s liking throughout the game.

And the Tar Heels used it to maintain a comfortable lead before finally putting Louisville away by scoring 11 unanswered points for a 79-61 advantage with 4:54 left.

“Coby thinks I get on him all the time about his shots and his turnovers, and he’s right,” Roy Williams said. “But he’s making much better decisions. It’s just attack, attack, attack.

“We want to attack like crazy and be under control. I think he’s doing a lot better job of that tonight and late in the season.”

In addition to White, Maye also finished with 19 points while leading the team with nine rebounds. Johnson had 14 points, all in the first half, and Garrison Brooks was also in double figures with 11 points.

Although Kenny Williams had a tough night on the score sheet, he played a strong defensive game by holding Louisville’s best player, Nwora, to just seven points. He also survived physically after suffering a pregame nosebleed, coming down hard on his shoulder in the first half and getting poked in the eye late in the game.

Despite all those maladies, Williams and his teammates emerged from their opening tournament game unscathed and ready to play again.

Not that Roy Williams is as obsessed as others are about playing Duke, which beat Syracuse 84-72 in the last quarterfinal game of the night.

“We are here and if they bring the Golden State Warriors out to play, we’ll play,” Roy Williams said. “If it’s Duke, we’ll play. If it’s Syracuse, we’ll play. I only care about how our team does.”