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Andrew Carter | The News & Observer | February 23, 2017

Strong defense pushes UNC to top of ACC standings

  Kennedy Meeks (3) scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for UNC Wednesday night.

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams wasn't in a place on Wednesday night to put into perspective what his team has done defensively during the past five days, but the numbers told some of the story, again, after the Tar Heels' 74-63 victory against Louisville.

And yet even as impressive as some of those were, Williams sounded greedy.

"I'd still like teams to shoot a lower percentage than 44 (percent)," he said.

RELATED: Recap of last night's UNC victory over Louisville

That's what the Cardinals shot on Wednesday night at the Smith Center. They had difficulty scoring in some stretches, missed 15 of their 20 attempts from behind the 3-point line, and UNC took control of the game during one decisive seven-minute stretch when it held the Cardinals to five points.

The Tar Heels' 17-5 run during those seven minutes gave them a 57-45 lead with about 8 1/2 minutes to play. It set the foundation for a victory that gave UNC a commanding two-game lead -- with only three games to play -- in the race for the ACC regular season championship.

Not that Williams or his players were in the mood to consider such an accomplishment.

"We've still got a lot of things that we've got to do," Williams said, looking ahead to those remaining games at Pittsburgh and at Virginia, and then at home on March 4 against Duke. "I feel good, yes, that we're on top. I'd rather be on top than third or seventh or 15th. But there's still a lot of work to do."

Justin Jackson, the junior forward who led the No. 8 Tar Heels (24-5, 12-3 ACC) with 21 points, put it more bluntly: "The ACC standings don't really matter."

And yet they do. Jackson and his teammates have spoken all season about their desire to repeat the success of last year with one exception: ending the season with a victory instead of a defeat on the final Monday night of the NCAA tournament.

Before the Tar Heels reached that stage a year ago, though, they won two ACC championships -- both the regular-season and the tournament -- and now these Tar Heels appear poised to do the same. At the least, they've positioned themselves for one of those.

Their game on Wednesday night against No. 7 Louisville (22-6, 10-5) represented, in some ways, a kind of playoff game in the ACC's regular season race. UNC entered the Smith Center as the league's only team that controlled its own fate in that race. Now the Tar Heels own an even firmer grasp on first place.

"Same thing as coming into this game, we're in control," said Theo Pinson, the junior forward. "Win games, you don't have nothing to worry about."

Pinson at times was emblematic of the piecemeal way in which UNC asserted itself on Wednesday night. Once, early in the second half, he drove the lane and finished with an acrobatic layup that defied description -- a whirling scoop shot that somehow went in.

That gave the Tar Heels a seven-point lead, one that quickly evaporated. Not long after, Pinson, who finished with 11 points, made a 3-pointer -- his second of the game -- to give the Tar Heels' an eight-point lead, and the Cardinals called a timeout. Pinson's second 3 came during UNC's decisive, game-turning run.

It had been a long time since Pinson, known for a lot of things but not his perimeter shooting, had made more than one 3-pointer in a game. He hadn't done it since Dec. 30, 2015, in a victory against Clemson. This victory, meanwhile, came in an unconventional manner.

Rank Team Conference Overall
1 North Carolina 12-3 24-5
2 Duke 10-5 22-6
3 Florida State 10-5 22-6
4 Louisville 10-5 22-6
5 Notre Dame 10-5 21-7
6 Miami (Fl)  9-6 19-8
7 Syracuse 9-7 17-12
8 Virginia Tech 8-7 19-8
9 Virginia 8-7 18-9
10 Georgia Tech 7-8 16-12
11 Wake Forest 7-9 16-12
12  Pittsburgh 4-11 15-13
13 Clemson 4-11 14-13
14 North Carolina St. 4-12 15-14
15 Boston College 2-13 9-19

The Tar Heels didn't shoot particularly well, only 37.1 percent. Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, played only 14 minutes amid foul trouble, and didn't score. Joel Berry, the junior point guard, missed eight of his 13 shots. And UNC began the game mired in a miserable shooting slump. In a lot of ways, this wasn't how Williams drew it up.

And yet it ended, anyway, with a relatively easy victory for the Tar Heels -- thanks in large part to their rebounding success, and Louisville's woes at the free throw line, where it missed nine of his 13 attempts. And so now UNC isn't just in first place in the ACC, it's in first place with a two-game cushion, ahead of four teams clumped together in a tie for second.

This was about the time, a year ago, when UNC began a surge that ended in the national championship game. It's starting to feel a little bit similar now, with the Tar Heels winning in unconventional ways, and winning, in its past two games, with defense most of all.

And yet, Berry said, "we're still making a lot of mistakes on the defensive end, even though we had a great defensive game tonight. ... Just overall, I just think this team can still get better."

The Tar Heels shut down Virginia on Saturday during a 61-45 victory at the Smith Center. It was more of the same against Louisville.

The games contrasted, though, in their physicality. Pinson at one point described game against Louisville as a "dog fight," and Berry, who embraces contact, said a possession rarely passed when he didn't endure a blow of some kind when Louisville attempted to set a screen. The Tar Heels prevailed, and left more in control of the ACC when they arrived at the Smith Center.

This article is written by Andrew Carter from The News & Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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