The North Carolina Tar Heels had one thing on their mind heading into their game against Louisville.
The Cardinals beat the Tar Heels by 21 points in the first game between the two teams at the Dean E. Smith Center on Jan. 12. It was the worst home-loss in the Roy Williams era, one that senior Kenny Williams said he and his teammates did not forget.
“We got some ‘get back’ that we have to get,” Williams said Tuesday, referencing the earlier loss.
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During Saturday’s game, it sure looked that way. The Tar Heels built a 16-point halftime lead, and held on in the second half to beat the 15th-ranked Cardinals 79-69.
“I think I’ve got a competitive group that got their tails beat as badly as they could be beaten,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, “and I think they bounced back and were more aware and had greater effort. Used their brain and their heart, both.”
UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson, who had 10 points in the first game and no 3-pointers, had 19 points and 10 rebounds. He made three, 3-pointers.. Senior forward Luke Maye, who had nine points in the first game, finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds. And Kenny Williams had 10 points and three steals, including a clutch 3-pointer down the stretch.
“I think the biggest thing for us was trying to just come out early,” Maye said. “Come out ready to go, and play from the jump. We didn’t do that last time. I thought we did that today.”
The game was not without drama, though. After UNC had increased its lead to 18 points in the second half, Louisville went on a 9-0 run to cut the Tar Heels’ lead to nine points with about 11 minutes remaining.
The Tar Heels immediately answered with a 10-2 run to go up 68-51 with 7:17 left in the game. The Tar Heels scored on five consecutive possessions. That was all they needed.
No. 9 UNC (17-4, 7-1 ACC) has now won five consecutive games since that initial loss to Louisville, and is 5-0 in ACC road games this season. Louisville’s (16-6, 7-2) loss snapped a six-game winning streak.
The theme for Saturday’s game commemorated boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who is from Louisville. The Cardinals warmed up in hoodies, and their mascot wore boxing gloves.
But it was the Tar Heels that delivered the early knockdown. After the Cardinals took a 15-12 lead in the first six minutes, the Tar Heels went on a 22-4 run over the next nine minutes to take a 34-19 lead with about five minutes remaining in the first half.
Maye, who played his worst game of the season Tuesday against Georgia Tech, was big for the Tar Heels against Louisville. After the Georgia Tech game, Williams told Maye in front of the team that he had played the worst game of his career.
Maye took that as a challenge and came out aggressive.
“If he doesn’t bounce back and play well we don’t win,” coach Williams said.
The Tar Heels were without freshman forward/guard Leaky Black, who sprained his ankle earlier this week in the game against Georgia Tech, and Sterling Manley, who is dealing with a sore knee. Manley has missed the last nine games.
But their bench stepped up and gave them good minutes. UNC sophomore forward Brandon Huffman contributed with two points in four minutes, and juniors Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods had two points each, and combined for seven assists.
While the Cardinals attempted to stage a comeback, the Tar Heels were just too much in their quest for revenge.
“The way that they beat us at home, it was a little more satisfying,” Kenny Williams said after the game. “You know, you come in with a little more motivation, and I think that showed in our play today.”