A few summers ago, while driving to the Outer Banks, Chris Mack and his family made a brief stop in Chapel Hill.
They parked near the Smith Center, walked toward a loading dock and, luckily, found a few maintenance workers who let them inside. They walked around the building and court and even made a stop in the adjacent Carolina Basketball Museum. Mack’s children were amazed.
“Very few places in the country are like this,” Mack said. “This is college basketball. It’s an honor to play here.”
But Saturday’s trip to the Smith Center — Mack’s first as a coach since he was a Wake Forest assistant in the early 2000s — was more than a tour. For Louisville, it was historic. The Cardinals blew out No. 12 UNC, 83-62, in the Tar Heels’ ACC home opener. And Mack, in his first year as head coach, led Louisville to its first win in Chapel Hill in four tries.
The 21-point home loss was UNC’s worst since 2002, and its worst ever in 16 seasons under head coach Roy Williams. The Cardinals (11-5, 2-1 ACC), three days removed from an overtime loss at Pittsburgh, controlled every aspect of the game. But there were two in particular, Mack said, that sealed it.
“I couldn’t be any more proud of our guys to keep Carolina out of transition and keep them off the glass,” he said. “Those are two challenges that not a whole lot of teams pass.”
UNC (12-4, 2-1 ACC) entered Saturday averaging 44.9 rebounds a game, tops in the ACC and the country. But its 31 rebounds against Louisville were a season low, and the +9 margin gave the Cardinals a huge advantage in pacing. That was evident in UNC’s second-half struggles (just 28 points on 45 possessions, the worst average for any half this season).
“I’m a little bit at a loss, but that’s OK,” Williams said. “It happens in coaching. We have a wonderful group of kids, and we’ve got to prepare better. And we’ve got a head coach that’s trying but not doing that well.”
The Cardinals were led by forward Dwayne Sutton, who had a near-triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, and Steven Enoch. Enoch, a 6-foot-10 center and UConn transfer, dominated North Carolina in the paint. He entered the game averaging nine points a game and had 11 by halftime. He finished with 17 on 7-13 shooting and 11 rebounds, both season highs.
Enoch’s success accentuated a problem UNC has run into at times over the last two seasons: a lack of bigs. With Sterling Manley still sidelined and Garrison Brooks in consistent foul trouble, Luke Maye played heavy minutes at the center spot. Brandon Huffman also played in spurts, but Williams said he probably “asked too much” of the sophomore reserve.
Maye and Huffman were the two primary defenders on Enoch, who was featured prominently in Louisville’s offense. He was consistently in good position, where all it took was one twist or dribble for an open jump hook. Maye said Louisville did a “good job of sealing (Enoch) inside and looking for him,” but he brushed off the idea that fatigue from playing so much center was a huge factor.
“I got some fouls and some easy shots were made on me, but I’ve just got to play as hard as I can,” said Maye, who shot 3-14 and had 11 rebounds in a team-high 36 minutes. “I missed four layups … all my shots were right on line except for the first one. Just felt like it was one of those days.”
Louisville was comfortable outside of the paint, too. The Cardinals made their first seven shots to start the game, and their shooting percentage hovered around 50 percent all game long. Louisville finished shooting 51.9 percent, the third best mark by a UNC opponent this season, and made 11 threes, tied for the most by an opponent.
On offense, UNC set season lows in most categories: 62 points, 20 field goals, three 3-pointers, 31 rebounds. The Cardinals limited them to 34.5 percent shooting and 13.6 percent 3-point shooting, both season worsts as well. The Tar Heels got their first lead of the game at the 19:13 mark of the first half, after Brooks converted an and-one. They never led again and trailed by as much as 22.
As Mack left Louisville’s locker room, his jacket off and the top button of his white dress shirt undone, he passed Enoch. His center was leaning against a wall in a hoodie and sweats. Reporters surrounded him as he talked about the win, and his game, and how he’s finally walking that fine line between rushing his shots and finding his touch.
“I feel like our energy and us talking to each other kind of got them off their groove,” Enoch said. “Usually, when teams play North Carolina, they’re wondering what’s going to happen next. But we didn’t pay any attention to that.”
Mack paused for a second, watching Enoch talk, and he smiled. Then he ducked behind a black curtain, headed toward an exit. Traveling Louisville fans showered him in cheers, as they’d done with every player and staffer that walked by.
If any Chapel Hill trip could have topped that one a few summers ago — when Mack’s kids were so enthralled with the Smith Center — this was probably it.
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