The North Carolina men’s basketball team found itself in another season defining moment on Monday night.
After just one day of rest and playing almost 39 minutes without either team establishing a comfortable lead, the Tar Heels’ fitness and desire were tested against Louisville — one lapse could have put an end to their NCAA Tournament chances.
With 1:40 left in the game and the Tar Heels only up by one, sophomore guard RJ Davis drove into the paint and found a cutting Brady Manek under the rim. The graduate transfer forward spun in the air before tossing it over to junior Armando Bacot for an emphatic slam.
On UNC’s next offensive possession, sophomore guard Caleb Love dribbled past three Louisville defenders for an easy layup.
Just like that, the Tar Heels had a five point lead — their largest of the half — and enough left in to escape the Dean E. Smith Center with a 70-63 victory.
A short rotation forced every North Carolina starter to play over 30 minutes in its past two games. Love played the most out of them, racking up a combined 79 minutes with only one day in between matchups.
“I kind of settled because I was tired,” Love said.
While more atypical in the regular season, this is how games will be spaced out in March. There’s little time to collect yourself and minimal chances of rest. But they’ll likely need team efforts like that to have any chance of making an NCAA Tournament run.
“I guess it’s good we’re getting in these types of situations now and especially for March, so we’ll be more composed,” Bacot said. “We had a few lapses, but all this stuff is just character building for us. We learn to just play together in these moments and to not panic.”
With their legs not the freshest, the Tar Heel starters all had to contribute on both ends of the ball. Four players scored 12 or more points and three players snagged two or more steals.
After Davis buried a 3-pointer to give UNC a six-point lead less than five minutes into the game, Louisville responded with a 11-3 run to grab the lead. Following that run, the largest lead either team had was four until halftime. In the second half, the biggest margin was three before Manek’s acrobatic feed to Bacot helped finally break the game open.
Despite the offense losing its rhythm and open shots not falling, the Tar Heels went on a 10-3 run, shutting out the Cardinals in the final minutes of the game.
“Being tired is not an excuse to not go out there and not perform, especially late in the game when it’s close like that,” Bacot said.
At a time when the offensive was not flowing, Davis and Manek showed great awareness, anticipating where the teammates would be, to help execute the most significant bucket of the game.
“Plays like that show how much we care about each other and how much we’re willing to share the ball with each other,” Love said. “It was a great sight to see.”
The NCAA Tournament may be looming, but the Tar Heels still have work to do to get in. They have a few days to rest, but with their next two games are also close to each other, fatigue could once again play a role.
UNC had just enough to get the two narrow wins in three days, but they will have to show next weekend that they can do it again.
“This isn’t the time to take a deep breath, to relax and to take your foot off the gas pedal,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “Actually, it’s the exact opposite. It’s to floor it.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.