By the time the buzzer has sounded in almost every game of the North Carolina men's basketball season, the score margins have not been remotely close.
Win or lose.
But in the Tar Heels’ narrow 90-83 victory on the road against Louisville, the script was a little different.
“We’ve been either winning games by 20, or losing by 20,” graduate forward Brady Manek said. “Tonight showed us a close game and we showed heart.”
When the regulation hourglass ticked down to zero in KFC Yum! Center, both opponents were deadlocked at 74.
In a true back-and-forth, North Carolina went head-to-head with an unforgiving opponent. The lead in the game changed 13 times, and the widest margin UNC ever went ahead of the Cardinals was 10 points, which was immediately followed by a 12-point run that brought Louisville back on top.
Ranked 13th in the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage, Louisville stunned the Tar Heels by converting 15 triples, many of which came transition against UNC’s unprepared defense already running to the paint.
Surpassing the Tar Heels in their forte, the Cardinals kept up with the rest of the stat board, collecting 41 boards to UNC's 44 and matching the team's 80 percent conversion rate from the free throw line.
“We were just telling each other in the huddle like, as bad as we were playing, we were just down by a couple points,” senior wing Leaky Black said. “Just settle down, fix it. It's a hard place to play and we knew it was gonna be a battle.”
As soon as Black had walked into the Cardinals’ basketball arena earlier that Wednesday, he was reminded of the chaotic atmosphere and absolute beating UNC took during his first and second years on the team. Given the Tar Heels’ road inconsistency throughout the season — previously having a 3-3 record in road games and 0-3 record in neutral sites — Black talked to the team before the game about staying tough to succeed in that environment.
Louisville was also a wild card opponent. Parting ways with its previous head coach, Chris Mack, just six days prior to the UNC game, the team stood with interim head coach Mike Pegues on the sideline. The team was also without its main playmaker, fifth-year forward Malik Williams, who was suspended.
“They were kind of like a wounded animal,” junior forward Armando Bacot said. “They’re one of the most dangerous animals in the kingdom, and they've just got a lot of fight in them.”
Bacot, after tangling with the Cardinals' 6-foot-8 big man Sydney Curry for 35 minutes, said it was the second-most physical game he’s played all season, next to North Carolina’s blowout loss to Kentucky in December.
When the score was tied and the clock read 8.3 seconds left until the end of regulation, the Tar Heels drew up a play that could have sealed the victory.
Head coach Hubert Davis had planned a ball screen action, wanting to send Bacot rolling to set up Manek for a triple to win the game. But with the ball in the hands of sophomore guard RJ Davis, he instead drove to shoot what looked like an open layup, until Withers clipped it to send the teams to overtime.
Mind you, UNC hadn’t won an overtime contest since February 2019.
The energy from the crowd spoke volumes after regulation. It thundered boos when sophomore guard Caleb Love put up a triple to begin the period and chucked ice onto the floor when Jae’Lyn Withers fouled out. As the Cardinals sunk into more foul trouble in the last minute of the period and gave up Tar Heel free throws, Bacot cracked a half smile.
Even in a battle against an unpredictable team, outside the comfort of a fanbase in Carolina blue jerseys or when competing neck and neck for 40 minutes, the Tar Heels showed they still had the grit to keep going.
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