In what was likely the team’s best performance of the season, the North Carolina men’s basketball team (14-7, 8-5 ACC) demolished the visiting Louisville Cardinals (11-5, 6-4 ACC), 99-54, giving North Carolina a crucial win as it hopes to secure its place in the NCAA Tournament.
Through the opening, free throws continued to be a weakness for North Carolina, with both senior and first-year bigs Garrison Brooks and Day’Ron Sharpe missing pairs of foul shots early on. This allowed the Cardinals to keep the game close, keeping pace with their opponents to bring the score to 17-15, UNC with under 12 minutes left in the half.
Riding the hot shooting hand of Kerwin Walton, who sank four 3-pointers in the half, the Tar Heels then jumped out to a 33-23 lead. The Cardinals hit two more free throws to reduce the lead to eight, before first-year guard Caleb Love lobbed up a ball on the fast break, setting up an authoritative alley-oop slam for Walker Kessler.
UNC’s prowess in the paint continued to shine from there, with both Sharpe and Love securing big inside buckets. A 3-pointer from first-year guard RJ Davis and yet another bucket from Sharpe gave the Tar Heels a 17-point cushion, while also putting Sharpe in double-digit scoring.
Just as the time was expiring in the half, Love made a big steal and ran the solo fast break all the way down the court, slamming in a huge one-hander just as the buzzer closed the first half, giving the Tar Heels a dominating 48-29 lead.
Once Louisville opened the scoring a minute and a half into the second period, the Tar Heels’ problems with turnovers began to show. Though only giving up five turnovers in the first half, North Carolina conceded four in the first four minutes of the second. Despite this, the team was able to hold onto a consistent 17-point lead, sitting at 52-35 at the first media timeout.
Coming out of the timeout, the teams went nearly bucket-for-bucket, before an and-one bucket from Sharpe gave the Tar Heels an even more commanding 21-point lead. A one-handed jumper from Brooks extended it to 23 with over 12 to play — UNC 64, Louisville 41.
After that, the Cardinals couldn’t really mount any resistance. Though they reduced the lead to 20, the Tar Heels held them off, with an Armando Bacot layup re-extending it to 24 with 9:23 left to play. This proved to be the start of a 6-0 personal run for Bacot, ending with a long face-up jumper to put UNC up 72-44 on Louisville.
But the Tar Heels still weren’t content. A 3-pointer from Davis put UNC up a whopping 32 points with over seven to play. After some more back-and-forth, UNC found itself up 91-50 with three minutes to play. Then, and only then, did head coach Roy Williams finally bring on the end-of-benchers, calling game.
Who stood out?
Though most of the team played well, Sharpe was the standout performer of the night, registering a double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds — all in just 17 minutes of playing time.
Walton had an electric first half, notching 14 points while going 4-5 from beyond the arc. He finished the game with 19 points, hitting one more deep ball in the process.
All in all, five Tar Heels — Sharpe, Walton, Bacot, Brooks and Kessler — scored double-digit points against the Cardinals.
Tonight's 71 points from Tar Heel first-years also sets a new school record.
When was it decided?
Once UNC broke out to a 10-point lead in the earlier part of the first half, the game was basically decided. The Cardinals were never able to mount any meaningful resistance to the Tar Heel onslaught from then on, with UNC sitting just one bucket away from 100 points by game’s end.
Why does it matter?
With the Tar Heels having a middling start to the season, every game from here on out has to be a win if they want to improve their tournament standing come March Madness. ESPN’s Bracketology has them as an eleventh seed and trending downward, so these wins are crucial to establishing their competitive status.
When do they play next?
North Carolina will continue its home stand against Marquette on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m.