LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They were right there against the last unbeaten team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the North Carolina team that might be the wisest bet to win the 2016 national championship.

It was Louisville that was making the spectacular dunks, like the flush Damion Lee delivered for the Cardinals’ first basket. It was Donovan Mitchell who kept elevating around the rim, daring the Tar Heels to turn him away.

It was Anas Mahmoud, a 7-footer, who dropped a delicious behind-the-back bounce pass to Lee in transition for a layup. It was Ray Spalding, just a freshman, who had his large mitts in the middle of every passing lane.

It was Rick Pitino’s guys that were doing more formidable work across the frontline. North Carolina didn’t get many easy shots.

Louisville looked tougher. Sharper. More determined.

And they were all of the above, closing out North Carolina with authority for a 71-65 victory at the KFC Yum! Center Monday night.

"That is the team with the highest ceiling (for the NCAA Tournament)," ESPN analyst Doris Burke said. "They (Louisville) shut them down."

"Louisville was definitely the tougher, grittier team," said one of the 20 NBA scouts who showed up to watch the talented prospects on both teams. "Louisville took it to them pretty much the whole night."

Mark it down as a major bounce-back for the Cardinals after their jarring 16-point loss to Virginia Saturday.

The folks who have been chirping that Louisville lacked a prime-time victory on its resume will have to find another topic because the Tar Heels were ranked second nationally and carried a 12-game winning streak to town. Heck, Roy Williams’ team earned 20 first-place votes in the AP Top 25 balloting earlier Monday.

"It was a big statement win," Onuaku said. "We didn't have a win against a Top 25 team until Pittsburgh and they're not really ranked any more."

Lee was unrelenting. His driving dunk on Louisville’s first basket set a tone that the Cardinals had no intention of being pushed around on their homecourt twice in three days.

This is a kid who scored only six points against the Cavaliers, missing all four of his three-point shots. Lee did not give up on his jump shot or his confidence. He made four of seven shots from distance, two of them daggers when Louisville finally flexed its lead to more than two possessions late in the second half.

Credit Lee with 24 points – and with demanding that his teammates match his poise and aggressiveness. He also played all 40 minutes.

Onauku forgot the Virginia game, too. He did not make a field goal against the Cavaliers. He made five against Carolina, scoring 12 points with 10 boards. He was also a force around the rim on defense. Louisville outscored the visitors by eight in the paint. 

"He made Carolina look uncomfortable around the basket," the NBA scout said. "He was a force at both ends."

Keep a close eye on Mahmoud. He has improved more than anybody on Rick Pitino’s team. He scored only four points, but he had that nifty behind-the-back pass on the break that Lee converted to a layup. He also collected four boards with three blocks.

You want defense? Louisville played it. North Carolina shot only 34.5 percent overall and missed 14 of 17 three-point shots. The Tar Heels' starting guards missed 19 of 23 shots. 

This was a different challenge than Virginia. The Cavaliers started two guys who did not average five points per game – and still beat Louisville by 16 points Saturday.

North Carolina started five guys who average better than 11 points per game. Point guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson both made the Top 25 cut for the Wooden Award, which is presented to the best player in the nation. Most of the NBA scouts were in town to see the Tar Heels, not Louisville.

Offense is what defines the Tar Heels. They prefer to outscore you – and they had outscored 19 of the first 21 teams they had played while averaging nearly 86 points per game.

The first half helped the Cardinals forget the way they played Saturday against Virginia.

It was Louisville that played the more formidable defense, limiting the Tar Heels to 27 points. That’s 16 less that Roy Williams’ team averaged per half. Only one UNC player, Justin Jackson, delivered more than one field goal. The Tar Heels failed to make 30 percent of their field goal attempts, a jumbo shift from the 57 percent Virginia shot Saturday.

Offensively, the Cardinals leaned on the guy who has carried the offense for most of this season – Lee. He splashed a pull-up three-pointer and attacked the rim for three more baskets, scoring 11 points.

In the second half, Louisville got stronger on the offensive end, making 17 of 32 shots (53.1) percent.

"It felt great," Lee said.

It gets easier for Louisville – for at least a dribble or two. The Cards play host to Boston College Saturday The Eagles have played eight Atlantic Coast Conference games. They have lost all eight.

Then it’s back to the grind with trips to Duke (Feb. 8) and Notre Dame (Feb. 13). Road games with Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia. You know the itinerary.

But this was a step forward for Rick Pitino’s team.

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