CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WDRB) — On the first play of Wednesday night’s prime-time Atlantic Coast Conference matchup with league-leading North Carolina, Louisville coach Rick Pitino roared at officials after Deng Adel was called for a blocking foul.

It was as hard as I’ve seen him go after an official all season. And it was illustrative of how much this game meant to Pitino. It’s not every day you get a chance to play for first place in the ACC. You win a game like that and your season goes from good to special.

Pitino could see it. He could almost grab it. A fan said something that hit him the wrong way on his way into the locker room at halftime and Pitino was incensed and turned to confront him. “He was in my face,” he could be heard shouting on his way into the locker room.

It was that kind of night. Tense. Turbulent. Yet with 16 minutes to play in the Dean Smith Center, where North Carolina hasn’t lost a game all season, it was tied at 40 despite his team not playing its best basketball.

Then North Carolina played like a team bent on getting back to the Final Four and NCAA Championship game. And Louisville played like a team that still has to learn a thing or two about getting there.

North Carolina 74, Louisville 63. But it wasn’t that close. The Tar Heels led by 17 at the final TV timeout. They controlled the boards 46-33 (including 24-13 in the second half). They made 21 of 29 free throws. Louisville made just 4 of 13, and started the game 0-for-6. After Donovan Mitchell made a pair, the Cards missed three more in a row.

And that pretty well tells you that the Cards perhaps didn’t embrace the opportunity before them the way their coach seemed to. They just didn't seem quite right mentally on their biggest stage of the season.

“We took ourselves out of the game tonight with foul shooting,” Pitino said. “It could’ve been a very close game, but we took ourselves out. We didn’t rebound as well as we should have, and we turned it over too much. But give them a lot of credit. They did a lot of good things down the stretch and we didn’t. They deserved the victory.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “They missed six or seven or eight free-throws, so we feel fortunate for that part of it. Part of that was our crowd was really into it. I loved our crowd.”

And part of it was that Louisville still has a step to take to win a road game in that situation. In their last two road games, the Cardinals are 20 of 43 from the free-throw line. Now, one of those games was an overtime win at Syracuse. And if you think doing that is easy, ask Duke, which lost to the Orange in the Carrier Dome Wednesday night.

So this is not a team with a large gap to close. But it does need to improve in some significant areas — free-throw shooting away from home being one of them — or the postseason could be brief.

“We’re missing shots,” Pitino said. “We played good enough to stay in the game, but not good enough to win the game. And then, 4-for-13 (from the free-throw line) and you get dominated on the glass. If you get the other team to shoot 36 percent and then give up 16 second-shots, you’re not going to win very many games. . . . I felt good about the shots we got, even when we missed. But the free throws, that’s ridiculous. I mean, it really is.”

It was a frustrated team for much of the night, and it showed. The Cards rushed a few shots, but in general got open shots, it just couldn’t make them. They missed their first six three-point tries and didn’t make one until nearly two minutes were gone in the second half.

Junior captain Quentin Snider said he could sense the frustration in huddles.

“You could tell we were down,” Snider said. “In timeouts, we just didn’t have any leadership, and that’s my bad on that part. We’ve just got to pick it up and move on to the next game. This was a game coach really wanted, because it was for first place. But they did a great job. They were hitting big shots and beat us on the backboards and played good defense.”

That defense is not something you’ve seen by and large from North Carolina teams; at least, not the hard-nosed brand they played against Louisville, and in the games leading up to Wednesday’s.

“We didn’t shoot it well,” junior Theo Pinson said. “But we showed the toughness part that we needed to show. We found a way to win. Louisville’s a great team, but we wanted to protect home court.”

Justin Jackson, junior forward, played like a guy who wants to make a serious run at the Wooden Award, finishing with 21 points, five rebounds and a couple of steals.

“To me, he should be one of the key guys for the Wooden Award,” Pitino said.

Said Jackson: “ACC standings don’t really matter. For us, we just beat a really good team, and we shot terrible. I think that shows we can win in different ways. When we come out to play, we can beat a whole lot of teams.”

You can say that for Louisville, too. But Wednesday wasn’t one of those nights, and Pitino and his players will have to wrestle with why — even if North Carolina is a national title contender on its home court. Mitchell finished with 21 for the Cards, but he was the only Louisville player to score in double figures. Kennedy Meeks had 14 points and 10 rebounds for North Carolina.

Either way, Pitino leaves with a sour taste, not just from the loss, but from his halftime experience with a fan. He had to be restrained heading into halftime, and ESPN revisited the incident in its game broadcast.

“He just got in my face and said something I didn’t like,” Pitino said. “But you know, I take it from students all the time. You expect it from students, but from an adult, and then he just turns his back on me like a coward — and he is a coward — so he doesn’t have to take it. But North Carolina’s a classy place, and one person doesn’t speak for the rest of the people.”

UNC coach Roy Williams was unhappy about it.

“Let’s get one thing cleared up,” he said to open his postgame remarks. “I just heard about one fan being ejected at halftime, yelling something at Rick. I don’t like that. I mean, we’re North Carolina, we don’t have to be like everyone else. You can raise cain and you can boo, but you don’t have to say stuff that we has coaches have to put up with. I hope that never happens again at North Carolina. I apologize to Rick. I don’t know what was said, but cheer like crazy for us. I know some of the junk I have to listen to on the road is not what I enjoy.”

Pitino didn’t enjoy this experience. And not primarily because of the fan reaction.

“North Carolina is a great team,” Mitchell said. “We want to be a great team. But we’re going to have to get things going on defense. Some nights you might not make shots, but you can’t let down on defense, and that goes for me as much as anyone. We’ll learn from this and get back to work.”

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