For the first 22 minutes of their game at Louisville on Saturday, it appeared likely that No. 13 North Carolina would return home in an enviable position: with a chance to take over first place in the ACC with a victory against Virginia on Monday night.
The Tar Heels, though, failed to hold the 18-point lead they built against the 10th-ranked Cardinals, who gradually erased that deficit before taking control of the game in overtime. So UNC returned home not with a statement victory, but with a need to address an old question.
It had been a while since coach Roy Williams questioned his team’s toughness. He did that after watching his team succumb to Louisville’s pressure and to foul trouble during the second half and overtime Saturday.
UNC’s loss snapped its six-game winning streak, which began with a home victory against Louisville. Williams was reminded of his team’s performance in that game, when the Tar Heels didn’t lack for toughness.
“And I thought today,” he said, “when we got the big lead that Louisville showed the toughness so much more than we did.”
The question now is whether the Tar Heels’ performance represented a one-game lapse, or if it’s cause for greater concern. How they respond against second-ranked Virginia, which experienced its first loss Saturday night against No. 4 Duke, should provide answers.
After the defeat at Louisville, UNC players spoke quietly inside the locker room. It was a scene – and a feeling – they hadn’t experienced in three weeks.
“They just competed harder than us, both ends of the floor,” guard Marcus Paige said. “There’s really not a whole lot of detail you can get into. Seventeen second-chance points in the second half. And they just stepped up to the challenge.
“They competed harder than us when we thought we had the game.”
If the Tar Heels could have preserved their 18-point lead, they would have entered the midpoint of their conference schedule with a chance to take over sole possession of first place in the ACC with a victory against the Cavaliers.
As it is, though, UNC will enter Monday night – its third Monday night ACC game, and second in two weeks – searching to rediscover an edge it thought it had found.