CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — With 16:47 left and Louisville holding a surprising lead at North Carolina, Jordan Nwora drilled a 3-pointer to push that lead to 14.
On the sideline, Ryan McMahon stood and pumped his fist toward Nwora.
Assistant coach Luke Murray stood and frantically waved his arms toward the other end of the court.
He knew the flurry that could still await Louisville. Surely, Roy Williams’ Tar Heels have erased bigger deficits by blitzing opponents in transition.
But that outburst never came. Louisville rolled from start to finish and dominated North Carolina 83-62, handing UNC its worst home loss in 16 seasons under Roy Williams.
The 12th-ranked Tar Heels won easily at Pittsburgh last weekend, 85-60. The Cardinals suffered a disappointing overtime loss in the same building Wednesday. And yet at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, Louisville turned in one of its best efforts of the season.
“We felt pretty low after the Pittsburgh game,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “… I think there was some soul-searching. Our locker room was pretty glum. I didn’t help them out when I walked in and got after ‘em. I thought the response was pretty good.”
Mack’s team never let an announced crowd of 21,243 get involved. The Cardinals hit their first seven shots, four from 3-point range, and took an 18-8 lead at the first media timeout. As unlikely as it seemed entering Saturday, the Tar Heels never really threatened.
Louisville held on because it made North Carolina look decidedly un-Carolina-like. As always, the Tar Heels thrive off fast-break points and offensive rebounds. They are 10-0 when they outscore their opponent in the paint, and 2-4 when they don’t. They are 10-1 when they outscore their opponent on the fast break, and 2-3 when they don’t.
The Cardinals held North Carolina to 26 points in the paint (tying the second-lowest mark of the season) and just four on the fast break (second-lowest of the season).
How? To start off, Louisville was aggressive on the offensive end and drew two fouls in the first 2:36 on North Carolina point guard Coby White, who often initiates the fast break.
“He’s a roadrunner,” Mack said.
Louisville also made an about-face in one-on-one defense. At Pittsburgh, the Cardinalss couldn’t stop two quick guards from penetrating toward the basket and causing problems. At North Carolina, they seldom found themselves out of position, which meant they didn’t require help defense.
“It’s you and your man,” Dwayne Sutton said. “You got to dig deep and keep them out of the paint.”
Cameron Johnson, who leads the Tar Heels in scoring and was shooting 49.4 percent from 3-point range before Saturday, missed all four of his 3-point attempts. Luke Maye, the team’s second-leading scorer, was 3-for-14, his worst shooting night of the season.
Midway through the second half, when the Tar Heels needed to start cutting into the deficit, they instead threw the ball away on three straight possessions. Sutton stole it on two of those, part of a terrific game for him. He finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and no turnovers.
“Seemed like they were bobbling the ball a little bit, and I think they were feeling the game pressure of being down double digits in their own building,” Mack said. “It does something to you sometimes, some funny things.”
Steven Enoch had his first career double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Nwora was always there with a key 3-pointer. He hit five.
The fans in Chapel Hill started heading for the exits with six minutes left in a 20-point game.
Louisville lost a game it should have won and then won a game it seemed likely to lose. Twenty-two miles away Saturday, the Pittsburgh team that upset Louisville on Wednesday went to the wire with a ranked N.C. State team that almost knocked off North Carolina on Tuesday. If that sounds confusing, well, the Cardinalss are just getting buckled up for a long ACC race.
“I was just telling the guys that’s the perfect example of the ACC,” North Carolina guard Kenny Williams said. “If there’s one game you don’t come to play, it happens just like that. You saw that tonight. That’s all it is — we didn’t come ready to play and they jumped out on us early.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal is part of the USA TODAY Network.