Heels Close Out Cardinals

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Six weeks after coughing up an 18-point lead at Louisville, No. 19 North Carolina executed with precision in the closing minutes to pull away from the 14th-ranked Cardinals, 70-60, in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday.

There were 10 lead changes and five ties through the opening 13 minutes of the second half, setting up what promised to be a tense, back-and-forth conclusion at the Greensboro Coliseum. The Tar Heels ruined that possibility with near flawless play over the final 7:08.

Louisville entered the under-8 media timeout holding a 57-56 lead. Cardinals guard Anton Gill missed a 3-pointer from the corner on the ensuing possession and UNC forward Brice Johnson scored on the opposite end to give the Tar Heels a lead they would not relinquish.

UNC scored 14 points over its final 10 possessions, while Louisville missed 10 of its 11 field goal attempts over its final 11 possessions, managing just three points. The Tar Heels rebounded three of their four misses, scoring on two of the three possessions. The Tar Heels were 12-of-12 from the free throw line in the second half.

Three different Tar Heels – Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson and Johnson – combined to make all six free throw attempts in the final 49 seconds to increase a 64-60 lead to the final margin.

“We’ve been in so many of those games that it’s good we’re starting to figure out how to be more poised in those games,” Paige told reporters after the win. “… Aside from the possession where we ran ‘go’ late clock and I missed the layup and they came down and hit a three, I think we executed perfectly down the stretch.”

Late-game execution has been a glaring issue for UNC dating back to its collapse at the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 31. Poor rebounding, turnovers, inefficient offensive possessions and a lack of poise were attached to losses to Louisville, N.C. State and Duke (twice).

UNC head coach Roy Williams, for example, noted during his postgame interview that in the loss at Louisville, his team had shot two air balls and committed a pair of turnovers over a four-possession stretch late due to rushing.

None of those aforementioned problems were present on Thursday. The Tar Heels were effective in their zone defense, while having a clear offensive plan each time down the court instead of scrambling around trying to force the issue.

“I feel like guys just stayed calm,” guard Nate Britt said. “We didn’t get too rattled. Our bigs played great for us. We stayed confident, we stayed poised and we took it one play at a time. When we take it one play at a time and don’t think that we have to make the homerun play, that’s when we’re at our best to close out games.”

Paige agreed.

“We’re just more poised and we’re doing a better job of making the defense work,” the junior point guard said. “We even got a shot clock violation, but even then it’s a dead ball turnover and you’re still killing 35 seconds off the clock. So we’re not rushing quick shots anymore as much, and we’re taking care of the ball for the most part.”

Williams told reporters his reasoning for leaning on his zone defense so heavily was the success the set had at Louisville six weeks ago. UNC ran its zone 5-7 times at the Yum! Center and the Cardinals failed to score against the look.

“Our man wasn’t working very well,” Williams said. “I thought Rozier was really just taking people, and J.P. was in foul trouble. So it maybe slowed the game down a little bit and makes it easier to find the shooters, makes it a little easier to stop the dribble penetration because we’ve got our center in the middle of the floor there.”

UNC shot 50 percent from the floor (12-of-24) in the second half, while holding Louisville to 22.2 percent on 8-of-36 shooting.

Thursday’s win marked the first time since 2003 that UNC has defeated a higher seed in the ACC Tournament (in five attempts) and set up a semifinal matchup with No. 1 seed Virginia on Friday (7pm).

Inside Carolina Top Stories