Jeff Walz made it clear to his team before the game. Being at the top of the ACC and the only undefeated team in ACC play placed a very clear target on the backs of the Cardinals. North Carolina was ready, having knocked off #9 N.C. State at home after being down by 14 in the second half. The Tar Heels almost made it two after crawling back to within four after being down by as much as 20 to the Cardinals. But the three quarter cushion and some key defensive plays allowed the Cards to escape Chapel Hill with a 74-67 victory to make it 10 straight.
A dominant first quarter had the Cards out 24-17 after 10 minutes of play. Louisville’s pressure defense clearly had the Tar Heels flustered. UNC’s performance to date had generated an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio with dominant rebounding margins. Louisville managed to force a team that had been averaging 11 turnovers per game into 12 first half turnovers.
The Cards were quick to capitalize and pushed the tempo to grab 16 points off UNC’s first half ball handling woes. Despite both teams shooting above 50% from the field the Cards managed to push the lead to 20 at 45-25 late in the second quarter. The Tar Heels had managed to take only 21 shots compared to Louisville’s 32 after 20 minutes of play.
Early in the third quarter things seemed to be continuing in the Cardinals favor despite Kylee Shook heading the bench with three fouls. UNC’s length could have proven difficult for the Cards but seemingly made no difference. Shook was only on the floor for 12 minutes and after the game Jeff Walz reported that her knee is bothering her. He hopes to have her back by Thursday, but also reported that Norika Konno will likely be out for two weeks due to knee issues of her own.
With a 62-45 lead at the start of the final quarter things seemed well in hand for the Cardinals. UNC point guard Shayla Bennett was playing with four fouls and had spent a good chunk of minutes on the bench after getting banged up in the first half and sitting with foul trouble for much of the third. Bennett would eventually foul out with seven minutes to play, held to just four points. Tar Heels guards Tucker and Church were called on and a smaller UNC lineup managed to stifle the Cardinals while exploding offensively.
A 6-0 run followed by a 7-0 run saw the Tar Heels cut a lead that had been 20 to just four with 1:22 remaining. The Cardinals looked to their bench but in patented Jeff Walz fashion the coach wanted to test his team’s mettle. Despite the scare, the Cards managed to get things done. UNC fired up desperation threes that wouldn’t connect, one of which missed thanks to a key Jazmine Jones block. Louisville hit free throws down the stretch to lose the fourth quarter 22-12 but win the war 74-67.
Dana Evans and Jaz Jones have been and continue to be the fixtures of the Cardinals offense and had 22 and 19 points respectively. While not ideal, a 13 assist to 15 turnover ratio saw nearly every Cardinal that touched the court end up with an assist. And although one of the keys to the victory at Boston College was three pointers that mattered less in Chapel Hill. The Cards were only 3 of 5 from three point range but had 38 points in the paint despite UNC’s size.
The Cardinals defense was, for most of the contest, impressive as usual. All five UNC starters were averaging double-figure scoring but only three managed the feat on Sunday. A Tar Heels team that had been regularly winning the rebounding battle was stymied as the Cards cleaned up for a 33 to 24 margin thanks mostly to the return of Bionca Dunham and a tough performance by Elizabeth Balogun. But despite 12 first half turnovers the Tar Heels managed to commit just two for the rest of the game as they surged towards a comeback.
Mykasa Robinson and Yacine Diop continue to see significant minutes and can be counted on to add a needed spark when the Cardinals need aggressive play. Louisville is playing well as a team despite the seeming tradition of crashing at least one quarter per game.
The Cardinals return home on Thursday for a two-game stretch with Virginia on Thursday and Pitt next Sunday. The Cards then travel up to South Bend to face a much depleted Notre Dame team.