North Carolina senior guard Kenny Williams walked up to each his teammates before tip off of their game against Louisville, and delivered them a much needed message.
“Be big-time,” Williams told them.
The Tar Heels knew that they were in for a tough matchup against a Louisville team that had beaten them by 21 points at home on Jan. 12. They had to play “big-time” in order to beat the 15th-ranked Cardinals at a packed KFC Yum! Center.
They did that, defeating the Cardinals 79-69. No. 9 UNC led by as many as 18 points in the first half. The Tar Heels (17-4, 7-1 ACC) are playing some of their best basketball right now. They’ve won five consecutive games, doing it in a variety of ways.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Against Notre Dame on Jan. 15, they won ugly, overcoming turnovers and missed shots. Against Virginia Tech on Jan. 21, they won pretty, shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.
The win on Saturday, was a little bit in between.
The Tar Heels started the game 3-for-10, and the Cardinals took a 15-12 lead after six minutes of play. But the Tar Heels used a 22-4 run over the next nine minutes to take control of the game. They went into halftime with a 16-point lead.
The Cardinals found life in the second half, and managed to cut the Tar Heels’ lead to nine points, but they never got closer than that.
The biggest thing for the Tar Heels during their winning streak is that the energy has picked up since that loss to Louisville (16-6, 7-2) three weeks ago. Players are diving on the floor and getting after loose balls. The practices have been better recently, players say, and therefore it shows on the court.
“It kind of opened our eyes a little bit to things we needed to do better,” said UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds Saturday. “We kind of had a big win at State and said ‘it’s going to be easy.’”
“It’s not all easy in this league.”
With the win over Louisville, UNC also improves to 5-0 in ACC road games.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Luke Maye answers Williams’ challenge
Back in the locker room, after UNC’s 77-54 win over Georgia Tech on Tuesday, Roy Williams issued his senior, Luke Maye, a challenge of sorts.
He told the 6-8, 240-pound big man, in front of the entire team, that no one had ever seen Luke Maye play a game like that.
It wasn’t a good game. Maye had four points (2 of 9 shooting), nine rebounds and five turnovers. But Williams seemed confident Maye would play better against Louisville.
“Luke’s a very bright young man, a very competitive young man,” Williams said, “a young man who is willing to put it out there, so I felt comfortable in the fact that he would bounce back and play well today.”
Williams turned out to be right.
Maye led the Tar Heels with 20 points and 11 rebounds. He was 7 of 18 from the floor, but was aggressive. He got to the free throw line seven times. Maye scored 12 of his 20 points in the first half. The Tar Heels were +10 when Maye was in the game.
“He wants the best for me,” Maye said of Williams’ message, “and I know that, and I want to go out there every day and give it my all and play with a lot of energy. Shots go in, shots don’t go in, I’ve just got to keep playing.”
2. Coby White was off, but Tar Heels still played well
Freshman guard Coby White’s shot was off against Louisville. He scored two points, and was 1 of 8 in the first half. He finished with eight points, and was 0 of 6 from 3.
But that did not matter much, because the Tar Heels got enough scoring from their other players.
That White was off and the Tar Heels still won by a sizable margin shows that the Tar Heels can win even when their top scorers are off. White is second on the team in scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game. He scored 46 points in his two previous games combined, but couldn’t find a rhythm on Saturday.
Johnson and Maye, who scored 19 points and 20 points respectively, made up for it.
3. The Tar Heels dominated the glass
UNC, which is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, has only been outrebounded twice this season. And in both of those games — against Kentucky on Dec. 22, and Louisville on Jan. 12 — the Tar Heels lost.
Louisville outrebounded UNC 40-31 in the first game.
This game, though, was much different. The Tar Heels dominated on the glass 49-32. It seemed as if every loose ball went their way. The Tar Heels had 18 offensive rebounds, and rebounded 45 percent of their misses. Maye had five offensive rebounds for the Tar Heels. Freshman forward Nassir Little had three, and three other players had two offensive rebounds.
Those offensive rebounds gave the Tar Heels extra possessions and led to 18 second chance points.
“We had greater effort, greater execution, greater concentration on the box outs in going after the ball,” Williams said. “It was a point of emphasis for us.”
The Tar Heels are now 17-2 when they out rebound their opponents.
4. When Louisville got hot, UNC remaining composed
More important than the rebounds, was that the Tar Heels had only two turnovers in the second half, Williams said. UNC had turned it over eight times in the first half, but were fortunate that Louisville had seven turnovers.
Turnovers have been the Achilles’ heel for the Tar Heels this season.
In the second half, when the Cardinals got hot, the Tar Heels needed to take care the basketball, and they did that. The Cardinals shot 48 percent in the second half, and hit seven 3-pointers.
What kept the Tar Heels ahead of the Cardinals, was that they didn’t give them extra possessions. Both of White’s turnovers occurred in the first half. Junior point guard Seventh Woods had four assists and no turnovers. And Kenny Williams did not have a turnover in the second half either.
5. UNC held Steven Enoch scoreless
Louisville junior center Steven Enoch, who is 6-10, 250 pounds, gave the Tar Heels problems in the first game. His length bothered the Tar Heels’ big men. He scored 17 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had block. It was arguably his best game of the season.
He and Dwayne Sutton were the difference-makers in Chapel Hill.
But UNC held him to zero points on Saturday. Enoch, a transfer from UConn, played 16 minutes and was 0-for-1 from the floor. He had only four rebounds and three fouls.
In five of Enoch’s first eight ACC games, he had scored in double figures.
“We needed (Enoch) to establish himself under the basket and he didn’t do that for us,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Until I can see the film, there were a couple of times where we tried to get it to him and we had live ball turnovers, or the ball got sort of muffled and ends up being 12, 15 feet way from the basket.”
Meanwhile, Maye and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks had their way. Brooks had 12 points and four rebounds, and was 6 of 9 from the floor. He had no rebounds in the first game.