North Carolina may have entered the ACC tournament as a No. 2 seed this week, but its first game in the quarterfinals against No. 7 seed Louisville did not come easy.
The Tar Heels led for the majority of the game, but the Cardinals never went away. They cut the lead to seven points with 8:20 remaining. But the Tar Heels locked down on defense and won 83-70.
North Carolina senior Luke Maye and freshman guard Coby White led the Tar Heels with 19 points each. Graduate senior Cam Johnson added 14 points.
“I was talking earlier, we lost last year and it was tough playing in Charlotte and losing like that,” Maye said, referencing the Tar Heels’ loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2018. “ And I wanted to come out and make sure that this time it didn’t go that way.”
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The Tar Heels (27-5) have now won eight consecutive games, their longest winning streak of the season.
North Carolina and Louisville split their season series this season, with both teams winning on the road. The Cardinals handed the Tar Heels their worst home loss in the Roy Williams era by 21 points on Jan. 12. UNC’s players credit the Louisville loss as the turnaround to their season.
After the loss they dropped to 12-4 on the season. Since then, the Tar Heels have been on a roll, winning 15 of their last 16, which now includes two wins over Louisville.
On Thursday, the Tar Heels got out and ran and ultimately wore down the Cardinals. They had 27 fast-break points.
“Coach preaches push the ball every day in practice and in the games and we try to do it every game and today we really pushed it and I got on the break and it benefited us well,” White said.
The Tar Heels grabbed a 34-21 lead with a little more than eight minutes left in the first half. At the time, it was the largest lead of the game. But the Cardinals cut the deficit to one point after going on 12-0 run over the next three minutes. The Tar Heels missed four consecutive shots and turned it over twice.
White stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer from the left corner. That helped jump start the offense. The Tar Heels finished the half on an 11-2 run to go up by 10 at halftime.
“Basketball is a game of runs and they came back and battled back and I thought coach got on us a little bit, especially at halftime and it kind of got us going and came out in the second half and made some big plays,” said Maye, who scored 11 of his 19 points in the second half.
In the second half, Louisville cut the lead to six with about 12 minutes left in the game. But UNC answered again. This time, UNC sophomore Garrison Brooks scored on a layup while being fouled. That extended the lead to 61-52 with 11:50 remaining.
Louisville hung around. Louisville’s Dwayne Sutton finished with 14 points.
The Cardinals cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 68-61 with 8:26 left in the game. But the Tar Heels turned up the pressure on defense.
“And we kept running,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We practice running a lot and so I think that was helpful to us today.”
Maye blocked two shots, and the Tar Heels forced three turnovers over the next three minutes on their way to a 10-0 run.
The Tar Heels led by 17 points with less than five minutes remaining. From there, the Cardinals never got closer than 10 points.
No. 2 seed UNC will play either No. 3 seed Duke or No. 6 seed Syracuse Friday night in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, depending on which team won the late game. A win over either team would likely solidify a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels beat Duke twice this season and Syracuse in their only meeting at home.