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UNC 74 - Louisville 63: Tar Heels take commanding lead in the ACC

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Heels now lead the ACC by 2 games

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight game, UNC took its opponents style and turned it against them and as a result now sit comfortably atop the ACC.

The game against No. 7 Louisville started off with the same appeal and enjoyment of the Jennifer Garner Capital One commercials that seem to run on a constant loop. Neither team appeared comfortable with the flow of a game that was hyped as essentially a regular season title game in conference. Roy Williams expressed his displeasure with the start - plagued by bad shots and turnovers - and pulled a Dean Smith with the 5 for 5 substitution. That lineup, which included Stillman White (high school Class of 1992), provided a quick surge of energy but had issues with Louisville’s length. The length of the Cards was given an even larger advantage due to the foul troubles of Isaiah Hicks. The senior forward was unable to stay on the court, picking up his third foul a mere sixteen seconds into the second half and his fourth before the 8:00 minute TV timeout. This foul trouble helped allow Louisville to rack up a 26-12 advantage in points in the paint at halftime. Despite the sloppy play and uncharacteristic disadvantage in the post, Carolina held a slim 33-30 lead at the break.

Halftime was an adventure as Rick Pitino had to be restrained by his assistants after a fan in the student section expressed their displeasure with him. Thankfully, it was well after many children’s bed-times when the ESPN sideline reporter had the gumption to spell out the supposed nasty word (the word was “suck”. seriously that was it.)

Great teams are able to win even when they don’t play particularly well. UNC shot 37.1% from the field on the game. Isaiah Hicks barely played and didn’t score a single point. But as Carolina basketball has done all year, they relied on the steady veteran leadership of guys like Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson. Meeks didn’t do anything flashy that will make a highlight video. All he did was score 14 points and grab 10 rebounds. Against a front-line like Louisville and without a consistent post presence like Hicks, it was overall a very impressive performance.

Of course all accolades and attention will go to Justin Jackson (deservedly so). The junior forward continued his march to get his jersey in the rafters with a team-high 21 points, including four 3’s. It is almost assuredly a two-man race for ACC Player of The Year between him and Luke Kennard with Jackson holding a slight edge by virtue of playing on the first place team. Joel Berry and Theo Pinson scored a solid 15 and 13 respectively to round out the main contributors.

Louisville will be upset at their putrid 4-13 performance from the free throw line but as a whole, they struggled for open looks. UNC’s defense continues to improve on a game by game basis and tonight was no exception. The Cards were held to 44% from the field and 25% from three, both of which were bolstered by garbage time buckets when the game was all but decided. If this defensive effort continues, look for the Heels to advance even deeper in the NCAA Tournament than last year.

The Heels travel to Pittsburgh on Saturday with a chance to all but clinch their second regular season conference title in a row.