Round 3: UNC’s response after blowout loss to Louisville turned its season around

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R.L. Bynum, Correspondent

@RL_Bynum

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Get ready for round three. The first two were logic-free.

On Wednesday night, Louisville earned an ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against No.3-ranked North Carolina with a 75–53 victory over Notre Dame.

Jordan Nwora scored the Cardinals’ first 12 points and led them with 24.

“We’re excited to play another day, and we know that we have a huge challenge in the Tar Heels,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said.

“But it beats going home.”

Thursday night’s 7 o’clock meeting comes after the visiting team blew out the home team in both regular-season meetings, both in head-scratching fashion.

The margins of both games were unexpected.

But UNC’s 83–62 loss in Chapel Hill on Jan. 12 got the Tar Heels’ attention.

Or, more specifically, Coach Roy Williams got their attention after the biggest UNC home loss since 2002 and the worst during his tenure at Chapel Hill.

UNC shot what still is a season-low of 34.5%, and Louisville’s 51.9% shooting was its best in league play.

“The way Coach responded to it, I think, really woke us up,” freshman Nassir Little said later in the season.

“A lot of people probably expected us to just run a thousand suicides.

“ ‘I can run ya’ll as much as I want, but at the end of the day, if you don’t want it, then it’s not going to do nothing,’ “ Little said, recounting Williams’ words.

“I think him saying that made us look in the mirror “

There is much more to like about the reflection that the Tar Heels see now as they head into the postseason.

In the aftermath of that home loss, Carolina’s play clearly is at another level.

Since then, the No. 2-seed Tar Heels have won 14 of 15 games, including a 79–69 win Feb. 2 at No. 7-seed Louisville (the game wasn’t that close; UNC led by 18 with five minutes left), their best stretch in league play since doing that in the 2010-11 season.

Louisville guard Khwan Fore could tell the Tar Heels had a different attitude in the second game.

“I think they came back with a chip on their shoulder,” Fore said.

“I would say they came back with more aggressiveness on the boards. They outrebounded us and played with a little more pace than we did.”

The Cardinals were consistently inconsistent to finish the regular season, losing five of their last seven but somehow threatening to win at No. 2-ranked Virginia in a 73-68 loss last week.

But they had little trouble against a cold-shooting Irish team.

Mack said the difference in his team’s two games against UNC was pace and rebounding.

“They’re going to try to race the ball up the floor,” Mack said.

“They’re going to try to pound it inside, and they’re going to try to decimate you on the glass. They did that in game 2. They didn’t do it as well in game 1. But that’s going to be the answer for us if we’re going to be able to be here as winners [Thursday] night, to be able to keep them out of transition, make it a 5 on 5 game, keep them off the glass.

“Again, easier said than done. They’re one of the best teams in the country, and we recognize that. But they don’t try to fool you.”

The Cardinals’ biggest worry is the boards.

In UNC’s win, the Tar Heels held a 49-25 edge after Louisville outrebounded them 40-31 in the first game.

No UNC players had double-digit rebounds in the first game, but Luke Maye pulled down 11 and Cameron Johnson 10 in the second game.

“Just got to keep them out of transition and fight them on the glass,” said Nwora, who scored 17 points in the first game and 11 in the second game.

He had three 3-pointers Wednesday and in the previous game against Virginia.

“Those are going to be the two keys to the game. If we want to have a chance, we’re going to have to do that.”

A key for Carolina will be to force turnovers to fuel its transition game and let Coby White push the ball up the court.

“We can’t turn the ball over,” Mack said.

“If we have live-ball turnovers like we did at the end of the first half, that’s going to put one of the fastest teams in the country in the open court. So, we have to do a great job with our ball security, and then getting numbers ahead of the ball. White is a blur in transition, his bigs are going to run, and they’re going to spread you with shooters.”

Maye went from nine points in the first game to 20 at Louisville.

“Luke Maye, some of the shots didn’t fall when we played them at Chapel Hill and we figured he’d come in the next game and be a lot more aggressive,” Fore said.

“He knocked down a couple of more shots and they played at a faster pace.”

The Tar Heels have a good history as a regular-season champion in the quarterfinals against teams that beat them during the regular season.

This is the fourth time it’s happened, and UNC won the previous three times: 83-62 over Wake Forest in Greensboro in 1988, 99–81 over Clemson in Atlanta in 2001 and 78-53 over Miami in Brooklyn in 2017.

UNC won its only previous ACC Tournament meeting with Louisville, also a quarterfinal game after the teams had split the two regular-season meetings, 70–60 in 2015 in Greensboro.

UNC beat Louisville 83–73 in Charlotte in the 2008 East Regional final.

After the way the two regular-season games went, anything can happen.

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