No. 9 North Carolina runs past No. 15 Louisville for impressive ACC road win

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North Carolina gained revenge in the ACC over Louisville on Saturday as the Tar Heels came away with an impressive 79-69 road win over the Cardinals.

The No. 9 Tar Heels showed a respectable toughness in the road win over the No. 15 Cardinals, which is among three main takeaways from this one.

North Carolina showed a toughness they haven’t shown all season

This was perhaps the most impressive North Carolina win this season because of the tenacity that they showed on the defensive end and on the glass. The Tar Heels simply dominated every facet of the game to build a double-digit cushion in the first half as they outrebounded Louisville 28-12 while outscoring them 8-0 in second-chance points.

The first matchup between these two teams last month, it felt like an unranked Louisville team caught the Tar Heels napping in Chapel Hill. The Cardinals won the battle on the glass (40-31) while also bringing an intensity that North Carolina wasn’t prepared for.

North Carolina was ready for the rematch.

Even though Louisville was wearing boxing-inspired jerseys and playing a ring bell for a Muhammad Ali-inspired day, it was the Tar Heels who were prepared to slug it out for a road win. North Carolina came away with 18 offensive rebounds while finishing with a decisive 49-32 advantage on the glass.

Even though North Carolina didn’t shoot particularly well (29-for-69, 42 percent) they dominated for most of the game, and did so because of a defensive intensity they haven’t shown through a full 40 minutes this season. Despite a slow game from the perimeter (more on that below), this was a major statement in toughness for a North Carolina team not usually known for winning every hustle play and loose ball.

If the Tar Heels can play even a little bit more like this on most nights then they should be taken seriously among the upper-echelon ACC contenders.

Louisville can’t afford to get down to talented teams like UNC

Credit Louisville for doing all they could to hang with North Carolina after an ugly first half. The Cardinals have become a top-15 team this season thanks to grittiness and intensity under first-year head coach Chris Mack. Whatever talent gap exists between Louisville and college basketball’s elite this season, they can make up for it in some games by playing with toughness and consistency.

Saturday’s loss against North Carolina also showed that Louisville can’t afford to get down early to the best teams in college basketball. Even though the Cardinals made some shots in the second half while closing the gap to single digits, they could never get over the hump with enough stops to get back in the game.

While Dwayne Sutton (19 points), Christen Cunningham (15 points) and Jordan Nwora (11 points) made some plays, they didn’t have a lot of help outside of that as the Cardinals couldn’t keep up with North Carolina’s uptempo attack. For Louisville to be at their best, they need to slow down the tempo and play to their strengths and not from behind.

It’ll be interesting to see how Louisville fares over the next several weeks as February turns out to be a brutal month for them. The Cardinals have a Monday turnaround to go on the road to No. 12 Virginia Tech before another ranked road game at No. 25 Florida State. After that, it’s Duke, Clemson, Syracuse and Virginia. Louisville has been perhaps college basketball’s biggest surprise to this point in the season. We’ll see how good they are after the next six games.

The Tar Heels can still win without elite guard play

Saturday wasn’t the best game for North Carolina’s guards. One of the reasons the Tar Heels lost in the first matchup with Louisville was an abysmal shooting performance that included 3-for-22 from three-point range.

In the rematch, North Carolina didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but still managed to win. The Tar Heels were only 6-for-24 from three-point range and freshman guard Coby White (eight points on 3-for-14 shooting) didn’t have a great game.

But between the defense, offensive rebounding, timely possessions and balanced scoring North Carolina was able to keep Louisville at arm’s length despite some serious runs from the Cardinals in the second half. Luke Maye (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Cameron Johnson (19 points, 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles while Garrison Brooks (12 points) and Kenny Williams (10 points) also finished with double-figures.

Even though White wasn’t at his best, he still had two admirable second-half possessions in which he scored crucial buckets to answer big Louisville shots — an and-one lay-up, and a nifty turnaround jumper off of one foot.

It’s important that the Tar Heels can beat good, top-15 teams like Louisville on the road in conference play without strong guard play. It shows that North Carolina doesn’t have to be reliant on a young player like White while also showing the balance this offense brings while he isn’t at his best.