CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 8 North Carolina blew open a tight game against No. 7 Louisville for a 74-63 victory and, in doing so, took full command of the nation’s top conference entering the final 10 days of league play.
With Syracuse’s upset of No. 10 Duke earlier in the evening, UNC’s matchup with Louisville turned into what could ultimately be the ACC regular season championship game. The Tar Heels’ win resulted in a two-game lead in the league standings with three games to play. UNC holds tiebreakers over three of the other four teams at 10-5 in ACC play – Louisville, No. 19 Florida State and No. 21 Notre Dame.
“We have a two-game lead right now, but there’s still some left to play,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “… I feel good, yes, that we’re on the top. I’d rather be on top than third or seventh or 15th, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The Tar Heels can clinch their second-straight ACC regular season title and corresponding No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament with two more wins or a win against Duke on March 4. UNC can also secure a double-bye in the ACC Tournament with one win in its final three games.
Junior Class Carries Load
Justin Jackson continued building his case for ACC Player of the Year, while classmates Joel Berry and Theo Pinson provided perimeter scoring in support in leading UNC’s offense.
Jackson outplayed Lousville’s Deng Adel, scoring 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting (4-of-9 3FG) while holding his counterpart to eight points on 4-of-13 shooting. Jackson has scored 20 points or more in seven of his last nine games and in 15 games overall, the most by a Tar Heel since 2008-09 (21, Tyler Hansbrough).
Berry scored 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting and Pinson added 13 points and six rebounds.
Critical Second Half Burst
Louisville tied the game at 40-40 with a 7-0 spurt with 16:08 to play. The Tar Heels immediately responded with five straight points that morphed into a 17-5 run over the next eight minutes to take a commanding 12-point lead into the under-8 media timeout.
UNC averaged 1.42 points per possession during the run, while holding the Cardinals to 2-of-9 shooting and forcing four turnovers.
Points in the Paint
UNC had lost its previous two ACC games in which it had been outscored in the paint, first to Georgia Tech (30-28) and then to Miami (28-22). That trend ended on Wednesday, as Louisville held a 26-12 edge in points in the paint at halftime and finished with a 40-26 advantage.
The Cardinals’ physical play inside made things difficult for the Tar Heels, who shot 31.8 percent on 2-point field goals. Kennedy Meeks scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting, while Isaiah Hicks was held scoreless in limited minutes due to foul trouble.
UNC’s most significant scoring advantage came at the free throw line. The Tar Heels converted 21-of-29 attempts, while Louisville missed nine of its 13 attempts.
“We took ourselves out of the game tonight with our foul shooting,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “It could have been a very close game and we took ourselves out.”
UNC improved to 11-2 at home under Roy Williams in games in which both teams are ranked in the AP Top-10.
UNC hits the road for one final Saturday-Monday turnaround.
“We’re getting ready to go on one of those trips that I don’t think any team in our league should have to do,” Williams said. “We’re on the road on Saturday and on the road on Monday. There’s three different teams that have had to do that, and that’s really difficult.”
Up first is a trip to Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center for a noon tip. The Panthers are 15-13 (4-11 ACC) and currently tied for 12th place in the ACC standings.