CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WDRB) – Chris Mack got all of 45 seconds, about as long as it took him to describe his team’s game plan for defeating Notre Dame 75-53 in Louisville’s ACC Tournament opener against Notre Dame Thursday night, before the North Carolina questions started raining down hard and fast.
In fact, he brought Thursday’s ACC quarterfinal matchup with No. 3-ranked and No. 2 seeded North Carolina up himself.
“We’re excited to play another day,” he said. “We know we have a huge challenge in the Tar Heels tomorrow. But it beats going home.”
The tournament, which this year ended a four-year absence from North Carolina – the longest in its existence – with its return to Charlotte (“home,” it was called in one story I saw, “where it belongs” in another), is a Carolina cultural institution.
Louisville got a taste of what it was like to infringe upon that home-state honor back on Feb. 12, when it stunned a large crowd at the Dean Smith Center by handling the Tar Heels 83-62. Stunned fans shuffled out, wondering what they’d just witnessed, the worst loss ever for a Roy Williams coached team in that building.
When North Carolina came to Louisville three weeks later, it returned the favor, beating Louisville 79-69 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. That win was in the midst of a seven-game win streak. The Tar Heels then suffered a home loss to Virginia, before reeling off seven more wins a row, a streak that remains active heading into Thursday’s game.
Something awakened in North Carolina, stirring up a more physical brand of play, exemplary rebounding and sparking talented freshman Coby White to more consistent play, complementing the play of seniors Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson.
“That was a toughness game,” Louisville guard Darius Perry said. “They were a different team. They came out kind of flat at their place and we took advantage of it. They didn’t do that the second time.”
Mack knows Louisville is facing multiple complicating factors. First, a North Carolina team that is playing well, chasing a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, an ACC Tournament championship, a rematch with Duke, and who knows what else?
And second, a highly partisan crowd in the Spectrum Center. For that, Mack invoked the goodwill of some other North Carolinians. And he said that slowing down North Carolina’s fast break could go a long way toward tamping down some of the party atmosphere.
“It's going to be obviously pro-Carolina,” Mack said. “I'm hoping the Duke fans get excited, too, for the Louisville Cardinals. But keeping them out of transition, we've got to score. We can't turn the ball over. If we have live ball turnovers like we did at the end of the first half (against Notre Dame), that's going to put one of the fastest teams in the country in the open court. So we have to do a great job with our ball security, and then getting numbers ahead of the ball. White is a blur in transition, his bigs are going to run, and they're going to spread you with shooters.”
While Louisville does have that experience of beating North Carolina at home, Mack says that’s of limited value in getting ready for this game. But he says the Cardinals know exactly what to expect from North Carolina. They just have to play an outstanding game to try to stop it.
“As I told these guys before, we've done it,” Mack said. “It doesn't make it any easier tomorrow night, but that's the first thing that we have to take care of if we put ourselves in position to win. . . . When you play a team for a third time, both teams are going to have great familiarity with one another. Coach (Roy) Williams doesn't try to trick you. They're going to try to race the ball up the floor. They're going to try to pound it inside, and they're going to try to decimate you on the glass. They did that in Game 2. They didn't do it as well in Game 1. But that's going to be the answer for us if we're going to be able to be here as winners tomorrow night, to be able to keep them out of transition, make it a 5 on 5 game, keep them off the glass. Again, easier said than done. They're one of the best teams in the country, and we recognize that. But they don't try to fool you.”
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