The blowout loss to Louisville in Chapel Hill two months ago appears to have been just what North Carolina needed. In sports parlance, it's referred to as a wakeup call.
The 83-62 defeat on Jan. 12 that was coach Roy Williams' most lopsided loss during his UNC tenure lit a fire under Tar Heels, who are one of the hottest teams in the country. They have won 14 of 15 games since -- including comfortable victories over ranked Virginia Tech (103-82) and Florida State (77-59) and a sweep of rival Duke. The only loss during that time came at home to Virginia (69-61).
North Carolina (26-5, 16-2) , which shared the regular season ACC title with the Cavaliers, also extracted some revenge against UofL (20-12, 10-8), winning 79-69 in the KFC Yum! Center on Feb. 2.
"We are feeling good right now," Cameron Johnson said after UNC's season-closing 79-70 win over Duke. "A lot of stuff is going good for us. We understand that right now it is win or go home. You cannot take anything for granted this time of year."
Now No. 7-seeded Louisville and the No. 2-seeded and No. 3-ranked Tar Heels will meet in the rubber match, a quarterfinal game in the ACC Tournament at 7 Thursday night in the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Both teams have plenty at stake besides a possible ACC Tournament championship. The Cards are trying to move up the seeding ladder for the NCAA Tournament before Selection Sunday, while the Heels are a prime candidate for a No. 1 seed following Gonzaga's loss to St. Mary's in the West Coast Conference Tournament final.
The two previous contests between Louisville and North Carolina presented a sharp contrast. In the Dean Dome, the Cards dominated from beginning to end and had two players with double-doubles -- Steven Enoch (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Dwayne Sutton (17/10). Sutton also handed out seven assists and UofL surprisingly won the rebounding battle 40-31.
In the rematch, however, it was Heels players who notched double-doubles, with Luke Maye getting 20 points and 11 boards and Johnson adding 19 and 10. And UNC clobbered UofL on the glass 49-32 while racking up an 18-3 advantage in second-chance points.
Afterwards, the UofL players said they got "bullied" and "punked" and Mack called his team's performance "very disappointing."
UNC leads the nation in rebounding (43.5 rpg.), is second in assists (19.3 per game) and rebound margin (9.3) and is third in scoring (86.6 ppg.). No other team in the country ranks in the top 10 in scoring, rebound margin and assists.
Without a dominant force offensively in the middle, the Heels are a perimeter-oriented team. Four players have hit at least 33 3-pointers, led by Johnson's 83-of-177 for 46.9 percent. They are also deadly in transition.
"They play fast, and their men on the glass, those are the two keys to the game, honestly," UofL guard Ryan McMahon says. "We've got to take care of the ball and not give them any easy points."
Added Jordan Nwora: "If we want to have a chance, we've got to keep them out of transition and fight them on the glass."
UofL advanced to the quarterfinals by coasting to a 75-53 win over Notre Dame Wednesday night, while North Carolina earned a double-bye and will be making its ACC tourney debut. If nothing else, the Cards should be well-rested because seven of Louisville's nine-man rotation played 20 minutes or less and the other two (Nwora and Sutton) played just 29 minutes.
"When you play a team for a third time, both are going to have great familiarity with each other," UofL coach Chris Mack said. "Coach Williams doesn't try to trick you. They don't try to fool you. They're going to try to race the ball up the floor. They're going to try to pound it inside, they're going to try to decimate you on the glass and they're going to spread you out with shooters. They did that in game two. They didn't do as well in game one. As I've told these guys, we've done it before. It doesn't make it any easier this time, but those are the things we have to take care of."
It will probably feel like almost a home game for the Heels, whose campus is only 141 miles from Charlotte and UNC has one of the best groups of traveling fans in college basketball.
"It's going to be obviously pro-Carolina," Mack said. "I'm hoping the Duke fans get excited and root for the Cardinals."
Like UNC in the first game, the Cards' loss in the second game proved to be a turning point for them too -- but in the opposite direction. They have won just four times since then and two of the victories have come against last-place Notre Dame.
Louisville, which reached its 17th-straight 20-win season Wednesday, has never advanced past the quarterfinals in the tournament.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org