By R.L. Bynum

If you’re going to play the nation’s No. 1 team, it’s helpful if that team isn’t trying to shake off a pair of narrow wins. Added to that, Louisville knew before its game against North Carolina started that No. 2 N.C. State and No. 3 Connecticut each lost earlier Thursday.

The host Cardinals weren’t about to be the third top-three team to lose and made sure of that with amazing perimeter shooting to jump out to a huge lead. Louisville held off a furious fourth-quarter UNC rally for a 79–68 victory in a game that was postponed three times.

The Cardinals (16–0, 9–0) were coming off a 65–63 win at Wake Forest and a 79–76 home win over Miami, but were intent on not following the Thursday fate of the Pack (which lost in overtime at Virginia Tech 83–71) and the Huskies (who lost 90–87 at Arkansas). 

The Tar Heels (8–6, 3–6 ACC), who have lost eight consecutive games to Louisville, haven’t beaten the Cardinals since a 78–74 win in a 2008 NCAA regional semifinal as a No. 1 seed. 

Louisville shot 66.7% and rebounded four of its six misses to jump out to a 30–16 lead by the end of the first quarter. The Cardinals kept it going in the second quarter, as Olivia Cochran hit 3-pointer at the buzzer, their eighth at that point, to take a 55–30 halftime lead.

In the hometown of Muhammad Ali, Coach Courtney Banghart had an apt analogy for what happened early in the game.

“Honestly, it wasn’t that we played poorly, it was that they just really shot lights out to start the game and it was something that happens very rarely in a season,” Banghart said. “Our guys just kind of took the punch and then we started punching back.”

Those Tar Heel punches landed often but came too late. 

UNC went on a 17–0 run, including the first 14 points of the fourth quarter. A Petra Holešínská 3-pointer with 1:56 left cut Louisville’s lead to 76–67 after the Tar Heels were down by 32 points in the third quarter. The previous highest UNC deficit of the season was 21 against High Point.

Petra Holešínská scored a season-high 26 points and made five 3-pointers to lead the Tar Heels.

Holešínská followed up a 24-point game in the big Sunday win over Notre Dame with a season-high 26 points on five 3-pointers. Louisville held Stephanie Watts to 10 points and Janelle Bailey, who fouled out late in the game, to 11. Alyssa Ustby collected eight points and a team-high 10 rebounds.

Many teams down by that many points would have given up, but Carolina was having none of that, playing much of the fourth quarter with four freshmen on the court.

“I was proud of the effort. I feel like we fought back in the second half,” said Holešínská, who fell short of her career-high of 29 for Illinois against Chicago State on Nov. 4, 2019. “I talked to them before the fourth. It was just like you know like, ‘win that quarter,’ because obviously at that point you might win the game, you might lose the game. But at that point, you just have to focus on the team and on getting better.”

The Tar Heels have plenty to build on off an impressive second half, mostly without Bailey, against the best team in the country.

“I just really like who this team is becoming,” Banghart said. “There’s no quit in this group.”

When Carolina is playing well, it’s with tough defense and good rebounding. Neither happened early on and the Cardinals seemingly couldn’t miss. Louisville shot 57.1% from 3-point range in the first half, finished 46.2% from 3-point range and made it difficult for UNC to get much going offensively.

Once Carolina started moving the ball better after the first quarter, the Tar Heels played well, outscoring the Cardinals 52–49 in the final three quarters. After being outrebounded 20–13 in the first half, UNC had a 22–14 advantage in the second half.

“Once we got through the onslaught we were fine. But that onslaught was a little hard to come back from,” Banghart said. “In the first quarter, we let the fact that they were so lights out … I think it jerked them back a little bit and we didn’t move it as well. When we settled into the game, we did fine and scored fine. Once you pivot to halfway through the second quarter, we win the game. So that quarter and a half really hurt us.” 

When Carolina has played well of late, it’s with terrific passing in their half-court offense. It just took a while for that to get going.

“We didn’t move the ball well in the first half and that was the biggest issue,” Holešínská said. “I feel like once we started moving the ball in the second half, we got great looks. So, it wasn’t as much them, it was us.”

Louisville had six players score in double figures, led by 17 from Cochran and 13 each from Dana Evans, Elizabeth Dixon and Kianna Smith.

Carolina tries to rebound at 4 p.m. Sunday in Blacksburg, Va., (ACC Network) for the first of two games at Virginia Tech (8–7, 3–7), which beat UNC on Jan. 14 in Chapel Hill 66–54. The Tar Heels also visit the Hokies on Feb. 28.

Virginia Tech will be riding high after upsetting the Wolfpack. That outcome means that, for the first time since the 2017–18 season, UNC won’t give the Wolfpack its first loss of the season.

No. 1 Louisville 79, North Carolina 68

ACC pool photos

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