Just 48 hours after scoring 14 points in the first half against a Virginia team that doesn’t defend like the Virginia we know and love, No. 19 Louisville went out and knocked off No. 2 North Carolina in the Yum! Center on Monday night, 71-65.
This was precisely the kind of win that the Cardinals needed. The knock on this group all season long has been the complete lack of quality wins on their résumé. They played very well at Kentucky … in a game they lost. They looked really good at Michigan State … in a loss.
Beyond that, their best win was, well, I don’t know. They hadn’t beaten a top 35 opponent on KenPom. It could have been Pitt or Florida State at home. Maybe Georgia Tech, or Virginia Tech, or N.C. State on the road. There was an argument to be made that, entering Monday, Louisville’s best win was Grand Canyon, and while they looked tough when they played, there was no empirical evidence for that beyond an impressive ranking on KenPom.com.
And then throw in that embarrassing loss to Virginia on Saturday. There was plenty of reason to doubt Louisville.
Not so much anymore.
Damion Lee led the way with 24 points, which included a pair of threes that helped the Cardinals create some separation from the Tar Heels midway through the second half, while Chinanu Onuaku added another double-double (12 points and 10 boards) and Donovan Mitchell chipped in with 10 points of his own. Defensively, the Cardinals forced 16 turnovers and held North Carolina to 34.5 percent shooting, including a 3-for-17 performance from beyond the arc.
And as a result, the Cards landed a win to pin at the top of the NCAA tournament profile while remaining within a game of first place in the ACC. Considering how tough the stretch run of ACC play will be for the Tar Heels, Louisville has a real chance to win at least a share of the ACC regular season title.
That’s pretty impressive to think about considering A) What this team lost in the offseason, B) The fact that the program is dealing with the Katina Powell scandal and C) their two best players spent last season at mid-major programs.
But that may not even be the biggest story coming out of this game.
Because Marcus Paige has apparently totally lost the ability to shoot the ball.
He was 3-for-13 on Monday night; 1-for-6 from three. That means that, in the last six games, Paige is now shooting 12-for-57 from the floor, a cool 21.1 percent. From the field. From three, Paige is 5-for-36, or knocking them down at a 13.9 percent clip.
That’s a problem. North Carolina has plenty of strength in their front court. Brice Johnson is playing like an All-American, Kennedy Meeks is a load when he’s healthy and Isaiah Hicks is talented enough to start at just about any program in the country that doesn’t start two guys as talented as Johnson and Meeks. They can really score in the post and they’re a great rebounding team.
What they lack is scoring, shooting and creativity out of their back court.
And that’s when Paige is playing like an all-american.
In a vacuum, losing a game at Louisville where you’re down by one possession in the final minute is not all that big of a deal, even if you are arguably the most talented team in all of college basketball. But with Marcus Paige struggling, there is only so far that this Tar Heels team will be able to go.