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The short history of UNC vs Louisville in the ACC

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You wouldn’t call it a rivalry just yet, but the Heels and Cards have had some entertaining battles.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina and Louisville have developed an interesting relationship since the latter joined the ACC before the 2014-15 season. The margins of victory have not always been super close, but a couple of barnburners stand out and might give the impression that the schools have a lengthy and intense intraconference rivalry. The teams have faced off multiple times in a season only once before this year (after Saturday, they will meet again in Louisville on Feb. 2), in Louisville’s inaugural ACC season, when they played three times.

Of course, the first two showdowns of this century between the Heels and Cardinals, when they were non-con foes, are perhaps the most memorable and significant. Tyler Hansbrough sank a couple of long jump shots as part of a 28-point, 13-rebound effort to seal up a 83-73 Carolina victory over Louisville in the 2008 Elite Eight in Charlotte, sending the Heels to their second Final Four under coach Roy Williams. Last year’s interim Cardinals coach and then-senior center David Padgett had six points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals, and two blocks in the losing effort for now-deposed coach Rick Pitino.

Then, in November 2013, an underdog Heels squad gave Louisville a glimpse of what to expect in the coming years with a 93-84 triumph in the Hall of Fame Tip Off Tournament in Uncasville, CT. Marcus Paige also foreshadowed a scintillating sophomore season by scoring 32 points and then-freshman Kennedy Meeks announced his presence with a 12-point, 13-rebound, seven-assist performance including several perfect outlet passes. The No. 24 Heels shot 54% from the field and 50% from distance in the upset over the No. 3 defending national champion Cardinals.

In all, UNC leads the ACC series 4-2 and the all-time modern series 13-4. (The first matchup came in the long-since-abandoned NCAA third place game in 1972, a 105-91 Carolina win.) Below is a brief look at those six conference matchups:

Jan. 10, 2015: No. 5 LOU @ No. 18 UNC (UNC W 72-71)

Carolina rudely welcomed the Cardinals to the ACC by storming back from a 13-point deficit in the final 8.5 minutes and stealing the game on Paige’s beautiful running scoop shot off the glass with 8.5 seconds left. Louisville chose not to take a timeout before Will Blackshear missed an open 3 from the corner and Terry Rozier couldn’t connect on a subsequent off-balance put-back attempt as time expired in a raucous Smith Center.

Paige, who was battling an ankle injury, scored only 10 points as part of a lengthy shooting slump. But he came through in the clutch one game after missing two potential go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds against Notre Dame, a 71-70 defeat in front of the home crowd. Carolina wouldn’t lose again for three weeks until…

Jan. 31, 2015: No. 13 UNC @ No. 10 LOU (LOU W 78-68 OT)

The Heels were completely cruising in the regular-season rematch in Louisville, building a 43-25 lead early in the second half after winning 11 of their previous 12 outings. And then everything fell apart in one of the most painful regular-season defeats of the Williams era.

The Cardinals wasted little time coming back, tying the game 53-all at the 8:20 mark before eventually exploding in overtime for the 10-point win. Rozier and Montrezl Harrell each scored 22 points, while Paige led the Heels with 13 points and J.P. Tokoto scored 11 with 11 rebounds. Carolina would get another crack at Louisville, but the season’s upward trajectory never fully recovered after this collapse.

Mar. 12, 2015: No. 19 UNC vs.* No. 14 LOU (UNC W 70-60)

UNC avenged the frustrating defeat to the Cardinals in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament in Greensboro, earning a 10-point victory of its own. Brice Johnson led the Heels with 22 points and seven rebounds, scoring 18 in the second half to overcome a five-point hole after Williams ripped into the team. Rozier scored 20 points, Blackshear 18, and Harrell 14, but the Cardinals shot just 22% from the field after the break.

The Heels used an 8-0 run to take control late, and then nailed all six free throws in the final minute to seal their second upset win over the Cardinals and take the season series. Carolina muscled out another big win the following night over Virginia, 71-67, before falling again to Notre Dame in the finals, 90-82.

Feb. 1, 2016: No. 2 UNC @ No. 19 LOU (LOU W 71-65)

Louisville sure has a way of raining on Carolina’s parade, as the Cardinals again stopped a lengthy UNC winning streak – this time a 12-gamer that included the first eight ACC bouts. The hosts took a 28-27 lead into halftime and never trailed afterwards, pulling away in the final minutes for an upset win.

Damion Lee led the Cardinals with 24 points. Justin Jackson (16 points) and Johnson (15) were the only Heels in double figures, as the team shot just 35 percent overall to begin a stretch of four losses in eight games. Carolina would regain its footing, though, winning 10 in a row before suffering the ultimate heartbreak in the national championship game loss to Villanova.

Feb. 22, 2017: No. 7 LOU @ No. 8 UNC (UNC W 74-63)

This is the game that prompted Pitino to lose his mind at a heckling UNC fan on his way to the locker room at halftime and later remark, “They always reminded me of a classy place, but they’re getting just like some of the other places now.” Coach, uh, relax. You were only down 33-30 at the time, anyway. But then the better and more focused team – the eventual national champion Heels – showed themselves in an important late-season contest for the ACC lead.

Carolina shot just 37 percent, but the ability to win ugly has always been a characteristic of the best UNC teams. The Heels crashed the boards for 16 offensive rebounds and 29 free-throw attempts to pull away after halftime for a double-digit win. Jackson scored 21 points, Joel Berry added 15, Meeks contributed 14 and Theo Pinson chipped in 13. Donovan Mitchell (21 points), on the other hand, was the only Louisville player to hit double-digit scoring.

Feb. 17, 2018: No. 14 UNC @ unranked LOU (UNC W 93-74)

In the first matchup of this century in which either team was unranked, Carolina handled business in a thorough performance on the road behind 23 points from Berry. The other four starters hit double-figure scoring as well – Pinson and Luke Maye each had 19, Cameron Johnson added 12, and Kenny Williams tallied 11. As had become custom, the Heels dominated the offensive boards with 17 and started hot to pick up their fifth straight win. UNC made 12-of-27 three-pointers to help stifle multiple Louisville runs.

Deng Adel scored 20 points off bench to lead the Cardinals, while Ray Spalding added 18 and Quentin Snyder 12. It was Louisville’s fifth loss in eight games, as the team stumbled to a 20-13 record (9-9 ACC) and an exit in the NIT quarterfinals for Padgett’s interim year at the end of the bench amidst program upheaval.

Louisville is unranked again for this edition of the matchup, but looked pretty impressive in non-conference play before their overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. Maybe Saturday adds another exciting chapter to what has been one of UNC's more entertaining ACC battles in recent years. Or maybe Chris Mack is going to need a couple more years.