With ACC lead at stake, Cards host unlucky Heels

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- After their off-the-charts performance in Wednesday's 90-66 demolition of Syracuse, Louisville's basketball team could be hard-pressed to come up with a suitable encore under normal circumstances. But these aren't normal circumstances.


"We've got a lot to play for," UofL coach Chris Mack said Friday afternoon prior to practice. "I loved our spirit and we've got to be able to recapture that and keep moving forward."


As struggling North Carolina (10-16, 3-12) visits the KFC Yum! Center Saturday afternoon (4 o'clock, ESPN), the ACC championship race enters its final two weeks with No. 11 UofL (22-5, 13-3) heading the pack.


Barely. The Cardinals own a tenuous half-game lead over Duke and Florida State, both 13-3, with a quick turnaround looming for a Monday night showdown against the Seminoles in Tallahassee. Virginia (10-5) is lurking in case the leaders falter.


The top four finishers receive a double-bye into the quarterfinals and with four games remaining, the Cards have all but assured themselves of one of those byes, but a bigger goal is their first regular season title since joining the league in 2015  and the continuing quest for a favorable seeding for March Madness. If the ACC tournament started today, Louisville would be the No. 1 seed, followed by Duke, Florida State and Virginia.


"The Florida State game won't mean a whole lot if we don't handle business on Saturday, so I don't talk about it with my team," Mack said. "My job is to make sure we're ready to go tomorrow."


Count freshman point guard David Johnson, who shined in his first collegiate start against Syracuse, among those who believe the Cards will build on their high level of play Wednesday.


"Afterwards we talked about some things and I really feel we can keep the ball rolling," he said. "We give each other confidence in practice, during the shootarounds, off the court and I feel like all of us are really boosting each other. As long as we continue to work, good things will happen for us."


North Carolina's players are probably thinking the same thing, but it hasn't turned out too well so far. The Tar Heels, one of the bluebloods of college basketball and a constant presence in the NCAA Tournament, have fallen on hard times and come to Louisville as the last-place team in the ACC.


UNC has lost six games in a row and has been called the unluckiest team in the country by Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams and others. It would be hard to dispute them, and it has been a particularly depressing stretch lately.


The Heels lost their last two games against Virginia (64-62) and Notre Dame (77-76) on difficult 3-point buzzer-beaters, and six of their last eight ACC defeats have been by three points or less, with another one by six. They blew a 15-point second-half lead against the Irish and also lost a lead in regulation against Duke and fell 98-96 in overtime two weeks ago. Yet, they also managed to get blown out by Wake Forest (11-14, 4-11) 74-57.


 "You've got two choices," said Williams after the heartbreaker at Notre Dame Monday night. "You can compete your butt off or you can get in a fetal position and curl up and start crying. ... We play Saturday. You can feel sorry for yourself and (if) you feel sorry for yourself, you're going to do that the rest of your freaking life. We're going to try to compete as hard as we can."


Mack has been there. He noted that his 2017 team at Xavier lost its best player, current Indiana Pacers point guard Edmund Sumner, near the end of the season and dropped six straight games but recovered and advanced to the Elite Eight.


"You just have to keep pressing forward," Mack said. "I don't care how many Carolina has lost in a row. They're still Carolina. They have talent and they're finally healthy. We don't worry about what losing streak they're coming in on, we just have to be ready for a team that has a history of excellence. They're gonna run the ball down your throat, or attempt to, and offensive rebound like mad"


Their marquee player is 6-foot-3 freshman point guard Cole Anthony, one of the premier point guards in the nation who Mack calls a "unique athlete." Anthony, who missed almost two months with a knee injury, is averaging 19.5 points, 3.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds. And even though he was out for 12 games he still leads the team in free throws made (76-101, .752). Still, UNC is 0-6 since Anthony's return.


"He's explosive," Mack said. "I think against any really good ballhandler, playmaker like Cole you just have to make the game as hard as you possible can on him, hard for him to get in the lane. You can't allow him to play downhill because he's a high-volume free throw shooter, gets to the (free throw) line an awful lot beause he creates contact. He's so quick that contact a lot of times isn't squared to him so he gets the benefit of the call, and rightfully so."


UofL's hottest player at the moment is senior forward Dwayne Sutton, who has averaged 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 56 percent, including 5-of-12 from 3-point range. In three games against UNC last season, Sutton averaged 16.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 3.7 assists.


Jordan Nwora goes into Saturday's game hoping to break out of a slump. In the last three games he has hit just 7-of-29 overall (.241) and 3-of-16 (.187) on treys.

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 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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