By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Most Carolina players were in elementary school the last time the Tar Heels beat Louisville nearly 14 years ago.
None of them remember that NCAA Sweet 16 victory, but they’ll never forget the No. 23 Tar Heels’ 66–65 upset of No. 3 Louisville at Carmichael Arena on Thursday night. It was a signature win and their biggest since knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame in 2019.
Coach Courtney Banghart and her team had to sweat the final three seconds when a 3-point attempt by the Cardinals’ Ahlana Smith bounced off the front of the rim and Chelsie Hall’s desperation underhanded follow shot hung on the rim, bounced a couple of times and missed at the buzzer.
“All I was thinking about is that this will literally rip their heart out and, no, we’re not doing that,” Banghart said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to have to walk into [talk to] that team and pick their hearts up off the floor.’ And that wouldn’t have been very good. So I just was like, these guys just deserve this so bad.”
Kennedy Todd-Williams scored seven of her career-high 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of huge late jumpers and two free throws to give the Tar Heels (20–5, 10–5) the lead for good with 16.2 seconds left.
Todd-Williams, who was guarding Smith, was just as nervous as anybody when the shot went up and seemingly took forever to bound away.
“I did give her a little bit of room,” Todd-Williams said. “But, thank God she missed it. And then the ball was rattling. I saw everybody looking up top and we’re just all like, please, just get it out.”
The 5-11 Todd-Williams took an Alyssa Ustby pass and drove on 6-3 Louisville forward Olivia Cochran with the game on the line seconds earlier.
“I knew Cochran was guarding me, and I knew she was gonna probably jump for that,” Todd-Williams said. “I ended up getting the foul and obviously there was some pressure. But, I mean, I know I make my free throws so I was not very pressured at all.”
Todd-Williams said that she’s never hit that many big shots in a game before.
“That was fun. I would have to say that we played our butts off to the very end,” said Todd-Williams, who added five rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block.
Todd-Williams hit another level in her breakthrough sophomore season with big plays and, along with the rest of the team, good defense and poise down the stretch.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without her improvement. And, so, just really happy for her,” Banghart said.
The win snapped an eight-game losing streak against Louisville (22–3, 13–2 ACC), which came to Chapel Hill with a seven-game win streak. It’s UNC’s first 20-win season since the 2014–15 NCAA Sweet 16 team.
The updated bracket projection by ESPN’s Charlie Creme has UNC as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
UNC won the rebounding battle for the fifth consecutive game (42–32), led by nine from Ustby and a season-high-tying seven from Carlie Littlefield. Center Anya Poole finished with five points, six rebounds and a career-high-tying four steals and made numerous big defensive plays.
“I am so happy for them to be validated with how much effort and how much better they’ve gotten in the last six months,” Banghart said.
It was the Tar Heels’ first win in the series since beating the Cardinals 78–74 in a 2008 NCAA New Orleans Regional semifinal, four years before they joined the ACC. It was only UNC’s fourth win over the Cardinals and the first in the regular season.
“I told them in the locker room before the game that if we just do us one minute at a time, we can do it,” Banghart said. “Let’s see where the chips fall. I said, ‘I wouldn’t have said that to you in August. But it’s not August; it’s February. If you do us one minute at a time.’ And they proved this and they believed it and they did it.”
Deja Kelly scored 18 points to outplay fellow ACC All-Freshman pick from a season ago Hailey Van Lith, who scored 17.
“That was a huge, huge, huge team win. It feels amazing,” said Kelly, who has at least 17 points in four consecutive games. “We just played so well. We were really locked in on the defensive end. Our defense led to a lot of offense and then we moved the ball really well, especially in that second half.”
Todd-Williams followed up a 3-pointer with a long 2-pointer to give UNC a 59–58 lead with 4:19 left. After three consecutive Louisville points, Hodgson’s short jumper with 2:47 tied it at 61.
Louisville’s Emily Engstler, who scored 11 points, drew a technical foul protesting her fourth foul out with 2:27 left. Kelly split a pair of free throws to put Carolina up 62–61. Cochran’s two free throws gave Louisville a brief lead before Kelly’s short jumper with 22.2 seconds left made it 64–63 UNC.
“We just wanted this win so bad and we knew that we were going to do whatever we had to get it,” Kelly said. “And we did.”
After Louisville retook the lead on a Van Lith layup with 21.6 seconds left, Todd-Williams grabbed it back on her two free throws before Smith missed the 3-pointer.
With four sophomore starters, UNC showed poise beyond their years down the stretch against one of the best teams in the country.
“We know that we kind of have to show that poise,” Kelly said. “We play so well together that we don’t really get rattled. And we just keep talking to each other. We got each other’s back so we don’t allow each other to get rattled either.”
Banghart was thankful to get a big win before a raucous crowd of 2,115, which included Roy Williams, and a student section that was loud and became a factor.
“Carmichael, in a short period of time, has really become a great place to play a college basketball game and the gratitude we have for our students can’t be overstated,” Banghart said. “It was an awesome environment. It was one of those environments where there were times that I wish I was a fan, because those of us who are playing and coaching, we’re just kind of in it. But we’re really glad that we gave everybody else just a great game to watch.”
Kelly’s back-to-back 3-pointers gave UNC a 10–7 lead but Louisville responded with a 9–2 run to lead 20–16 after one quarter.
Two of the best transition teams in the ACC put on a running show early in the game. UNC got some easy shots with long outlet passes but didn’t always convert and also turned the ball over several times.
“We used the deep run to try to slice the floor a little bit and they also went a little bit smaller so that they could contain our run-outs,” Banghart said.
Ustby’s crafty inside bucket cut the Cardinals’ lead to 23–20 with 8:28 left in the first half. Todd-Williams ended a nearly 4½-minute scoring drought with a short jumper that ignited an 8–4 Carolina run. Louisville led 37–32 at halftime.
Kelly’s jumper with 5:11 left in the third quarter cut Carolina’s deficit to four.
Eva Hodgson’s driving 3-point play with 28.4 seconds left in the third quarter gave UNC its first lead since the first quarter, but Mykasa Robinson’s 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Louisville a 50–48 edge entering the final quarter.
The Tar Heels play their final two road games in the next week, visiting Florida State at noon Sunday (regional sports networks) and Virginia at 7 p.m. Thursday (ESPN3). The Seminoles (14–11, 10–3) beat Boston College 66–58 at home on Thursday night.
No. 23 UNC 66,
No. 3 Louisville 65
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|9||92–47 win, 1–0||Home||N.C. A&T|
|14||89–33 win, 2–0||Road||Charlotte|
|17||89–44 win, 3–0||Home||Appalachian State|
|21||79–46 win, 4–0||Road||TCU|
|26||72–59 win, 5–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — VCU|
|27||58–37 win, 6–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — Washington|
|December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)|
|1||82–76 win, 7–0||Road||Y — Minnesota|
|5||93–47 win, 8–0||Home||James Madison|
|12||107–46 win, 9–0||Home||UNC Asheville|
|19||76–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, 12–0, 2–0||Home||Syracuse|
|January (4–4, 4–4 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 4 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||No. 23 Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 19 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 16 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 4 N.C. State|
|February (4–1, 4–1 ACC)|
|3||78–59 win, 17–4, 7–4||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||85–38 win, 18–4, 8–4||Home||Miami|
|10||64–54 win, 19–4, 9–4||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||66–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5||Road||No. 23 Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–5, 10–5||Home||No. 3 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, 4, ACCN||Home||Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications