Relating the North Carolina-Louisville basketball game Thursday night to Kentucky's premier sporting business, horse racing, the Tar Heels left the Cardinals at the starting gate too often.
Second-seeded and third-ranked UNC (27-5) used its transition game to outrun UofL (20-13) 83-70 in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament in the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., and advance to the semifinals against Duke.
The Cards, foiled for the fourth time in an attempt to reach the semis, returned home to await their seeding in the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. They are projected as No. 7 seed by most prognosticators.
UofL and North Carolina had split the two regular-season games, but this one was all Tar Heels, thanks largely to its speedy attack.
UNC scored 27 points on fast breaks before UofL could set up its half-court defense and outscored Louisville 40-26 in the paint as the Cards lost for the seventh time in their last nine games. Regardless of the situation -- missed shots, made shots, turnovers -- the Heels ran, ran and ran some more.
"It's hard to say what (UNC) did better, other than Roy did something to get those guys shot out of a cannon," UofL coach Chris Mack said, referring to coach Roy Williams. "I remember years ago when he coached Kansas against Marquette in the Final Four in New Orleans and I don't know if I'd ever seen a team play as fast that day as they did … until today. The floor was tilted. Even on made shots we could not get back.
"We ended up adjusting. Instead of sending three guys to the offensive glass, we ended up sending two and we haven't done that one time all year. I think they tried to land a knockout punch and play downhill."
Another big factor for the winners was Kenny Williams' defense on Jordan Nwora, UofL's leading scorer on the season at 17.3 points per game. Nwora was held scoreless for the final 26 minutes, getting his last field goal on a driving layin at the six-minute mark of the first half. He finished with a season-low seven points on 3-of-8 shooting. That snapped a string of 17 consecutive games in double figures.
However, there were several bright spots for the Cards with the play of reserves Darius Perry and V.J. King, as well as Dwayne Sutton's emergence from a troublesome shooting slump.
Sutton had 14 points, six rebounds and four assists while hitting 5-of-10 shots overall and 4-of-9 from 3-point land after going 6-of-30 on treys and scoring in double figures just once in his last seven outings.
Perry, who was averaging only 2.3 points per game in ACC play, came off the bench to score 10, along with three rebounds and three assists. King hit 4-of-5 shots to score nine points, and also grabbed three rebounds.
Malik Williams posted his third double-double in his last four games and his fifth of the season with 10 points and 13 boards.
For UNC, freshman guard Coby White delivered an outstanding all-around performance with 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists and just one turnover. Luke Maye had 19 points and nine rebounds, and Cameron Johnson contributed 14 points, four rebounds and three assists.
"Coby White made the right decision each and every time," Mack said. "Whether it was an advance pass to Cam Johnson, whether it was to Garrison Brooks underneath. So they're a load when they play that quickly."
North Carolina led virtually wire to wire. After UofL grabbed a quick 5-2 lead, the Tar Heels took over and never trailed again.
The Heels looked as if they were going to turn the game into a rout before intermission, building a 34-21 lead with 8:32 remaining in the first half. But the Cards responded with a 12-0 run to close within 34-33 before UNC regrouped to score 11 of the next 13 points for a 45-35 halftime advantage.
"I think the key to the game was at the start in not having a level of readiness to how fast they were going to play," UofL assistant coach Luke Murray said. "We got caught a little bit off guard in how fast they were playing."
After falling behind 52-39 early in the second half, the Cards pulled to within 58-52 at the 12:10 mark, but could get no closer. Still, they were within striking distance at 68-61 with 8:24 remaining before Carolina scored the next 11 points to open their largest lead, 79-61, and put the game out of reach.
During that stretch, UofL missed five shots and committed three turnovers.
"Carolina is a great team," Mack said. "They were better than us tonight, that's for sure. And it's nothing we didn't know coming in. But I mean their transition is phenomenal, as fast as any team I've coached against. And you can talk about it and talk about it, but talking doesn't prepare you somtimes."
Not this time at least.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.