CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Kennedy Todd-Williams, Deja Kelly and their North Carolina teammates were determined not to let a big upset slip away.
The 24th-ranked Tar Heels fought to the horn to make sure it didn’t, too.
Todd-Williams knocked down the go-ahead free throws with 16.2 seconds left and UNC survived Louisville’s two final-play missed shots to topple the third-ranked Cardinals 66-65 on Thursday night, setting off a midcourt celebration of a win with significant implications in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season race.
“Man, we just beat a really, really good basketball team, which is a signature win that we’ve been waiting for,” third-year Tar Heels coach Courtney Banghart said.
Todd-Williams finished with 19 points to lead the Tar Heels (20-5, 10-5 ACC), who rallied from 10 down before halftime to end an eight-game skid against the Cardinals in dramatic fashion.
After Todd-Williams’ free throws, Louisville called timeout to set up a final play. As the clock dwindled down, Kianna Smith hit the front rim on a 3-point attempt. Chelsie Hall grabbed the rebound and tossed the ball up as she fell backward to the court. The ball crept around the rim from the right side to the left before slowly rolling off as the horn sounded.
The Tar Heels immediately mobbed each other, while Kelly (who scored 18 points) triumphantly motioned to the crowd for more noise.
Hailey Van Lith scored 17 points to lead Louisville (22-3, 13-2), which had won all eight meetings with UNC since joining the ACC for the 2014-15 season. Cochran added 12 of her 14 points after halftime.
But the Tar Heels controlled the boards to finish with a 42-32 edge, including 13-5 on the offensive glass, to offset their own 38% shooting.
“They got a couple of key offensive rebounds at the end there where we played really good, solid defense, then we’d let them get another shot up,” Van Lith said. “And it would either turn into a foul and some free throws or they’d knock down a shot, so I think that’s really what it came down to for us.”
Louisville: This was a setback in the Cardinals’ hopes of pressuring No. 4 North Carolina State for the league lead. Louisville entered the night only a game back in the win column, though the Wolfpack had won the only regular-season meeting to claim the tiebreaker. This loss snapped a run of seven straight wins – eight if counting a forfeit when Virginia couldn’t travel for last week’s matchup – and will make it difficult for Louisville to catch N.C. State.
“You’re still trying to compete for a double-bye in the ACC Tournament, and there’s still a lot of basketball left,” coach Jeff Walz said. “There are a lot of good teams in this league. It’s a matter of what’s your resolve? What are you able to do when you hit a little adversity?”
UNC: The Tar Heels entered this one jostling for position in the upper third of the league in hopes of securing a top-four seed and that double-round bye in the ACC Tournament. This was big, both on that front and for ending the long streak to the Cardinals.
The final minute saw four lead changes, including Kelly hitting a contested jumper with 23.3 seconds left to make it 64-63.
Van Lith answered by losing her defender on an inbounds play for a layup, only to see Todd-Williams draw a whistle on Olivia Cochran in the paint for the winning free throws.
Both teams showed composure to the horn.
“It was just a good moment for us, because we’re like, `We’ve got to get a stop,”‘ Todd-Williams said. “Our blood pressure is up. Everything is just high. We just locked in. We were just focused on what we needed to do.”
THE FINAL PLAY
As Hall’s final shot slowly rolled along the back of the rim, Kelly could only describe it as “nerve-wracking” while Banghart said: “Literally, it felt like an hour.”
“It was just like, `Ugh, these guys just deserve this so bad,”‘ Banghart said.
Walz said he was fine with Louisville’s final shots.
“We got a really good shot there (from Smith),” he said. “We get an (offensive) board. We just lost our balance and it rolled around the rim and went off.”
Banghart’s Tar Heels had beaten N.C. State teams carrying top-10 rankings in each of her first two seasons. But Louisville is the highest-ranked team her Tar Heels have beaten during her tenure.
Louisville: The Cardinals play another ranked ACC team, hosting No. 23 Virginia Tech on Sunday.
UNC: The Tar Heels visit Florida State on Sunday.