In the span of a mere three days, Louisville provided an ideal microcosm for this zany, unpredictable college basketball season.
The Cardinals followed up their worst performance of the season Saturday against Virginia with their best on Monday night against North Carolina.
The key to Louisville's 71-65 upset victory was the second-ranked Tar Heels' inability to figure out how to attack the Cardinals' matchup zone. Nearly a quarter of North Carolina's possessions ended in turnovers. When the Tar Heels did get a shot off, Too many of their attempts around the rim were altered by Louisville's long-armed big men and too many of their perimeter jump shots consistently misfired.
North Carolina shot 34.5 percent from the field and 3-for-17 from behind the arc. Starting guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry were especially ineffective, combining for 4-for-23 shooting.
The smothering defensive effort from Louisville helped the Cardinals finally silence criticism over their lack of marquee victories. Thanks to a soft non-league schedule and a back-loaded ACC slate, Louisville somehow entered Monday's game with a 17-4 record and no victories over top 40 KenPom teams.
The best teams the Cardinals had beaten are Pittsburgh and Florida State, the former of which projects as a No. 8 or 9 seed at this point and the latter of which is a fringe NCAA tournament contender. Louisville had lost to the three best teams it had faced this season including Saturday's 63-47 home meltdown against the Cavaliers.
Defense was the key to Louisville's bounce-back effort, but the Cardinals were much more effective scoring on Monday than they were two nights earlier.
Damion Lee scored 24 points including back-to-back 3-pointers to help Louisville finally gain second-half separation, while Chinanu Onuaku added 12 points and 10 rebounds despite constant foul trouble. 7-footer Anas Mahmoud had the game's most memorable highlight midway through the first half, leading a fast break and then going behind the back to Lee for a layup.
While Louisville finally securing a notable victory was the most important takeaway from Monday's game, the outcome also significantly tightens the ACC race. Now the first-place Tar Heels are just a game ahead of the second-place Cardinals with plenty of landmines left on the schedule for both teams.
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