UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- What a difference a week makes.
"It's a completely different feeling than it was seven days ago at the end of the Belmont game when we didn't play," coach Roy Williams said. "Today I thought we played exceptionally well."
Marcus Paige scored 32 points, putting up a career high for the second straight day in the tournament. He had 26 Saturday in a win over Richmond.
"We just wanted to come here and give better effort. We had a bad taste in our mouth, cause we had to watch the whole film of the Belmont game," Paige said. "We wanted to come here with the mindset that we can change our season and get back in the right mind frame that we're one of the best teams in the country if we play together and hard."
It was a three-point game with just over 13 minutes left when Louisville's Montrezl Harrell picked up his fourth foul. North Carolina scored the next eight points.
Harrell fouled out driving to the basket with 7 minutes left, exiting the game with just five points and 10 rebounds. With the sophomore star out of the game, North Carolina pushed the lead to 16 points at 83-67, outmuscling the Cardinals under the basket.
"They weren't good fouls, especially that fifth one" said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "You give it to people open or you go around them, you don't try to pull a Michael Jordan at that point."
The teams combined for 50 fouls and that affected Louisville's press, forcing the Cardinals to play further off their men.
North Carolina also thwarted Louisville's transition game, getting several easy baskets by keeping a big man back near half court.
"When I got my first outlet pass I got the sense they weren't paying attention to it," Meeks said.
Paige hit 9 of his 12 shots from the floor and was 11 of 11 from the foul line.
"I'm trying to stay in attack mode the entire time," he said. "That makes our team harder to guard and frees up the big guys. I'm one of the leaders on this team so I feel the need to provide some outside scoring. I'm the only one who attempts 3-pointers pretty much."
But it was the Russ Smith show early, as he had 22 points in the first half.
He and Jones were a combined 10 of 19 from the floor before intermission, while the rest of the Cardinals hit just three of 13 shots.
Both teams started hot, making a combined 10 of the first 12 shots taken from the floor. A pair of 3-pointers from Smith and one from Jones helped Louisville to an early 19-10 lead.
Brice Johnson's block of a Harrell dunk attempt brought the surprisingly partisan UNC crowd into the game. His rebound dunk and foul shot cut the Louisville lead to 33-31, but Smith answered with his fourth 3-pointer of the half.
The Tar Heels scored the next six, taking the lead on a pair of free throws by Paige at 37-36.
The teams went back and forth from there before Paige buried a long 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to tie the score at 44.
"I think they made a good change in the second half," Jones said. "They clogged the lane and played that high zone so me and Russ couldn't penetrate. That's something we have to learn. I don't think we passed the ball as well was we have all year."
Louisville, which was playing its first games away from home during this tournament, had not lost since last Feb. 9 when it dropped a five-overtime affair to Notre Dame.
North Carolina has been playing this season without P.J. Hairston, who was the Tar Heels' leading scorer a year ago, and senior guard Leslie McDonald. Neither traveled to the tournament because NCAA eligibility concerns.
Authorities twice cited Hairston during the offseason while he drove rental cars linked to a felon. The school hasn't specified McDonald's issue, though it sent a letter ordering a company making designer mouth guards to stop using McDonald on its web site over the summer.
North Carolina dropped from 12th to 24th in the AP Poll after falling to Belmont, the first loss by the Tar Heels to an unranked non-conference opponent at home since February, 2002. The Tar Heels missed 26 free throws in that game.
They were 26 of 38 against Louisville after making 26 of 38 against Richmond.
The Tar Heels are now 9-3 against Louisville. The two perennial powers hadn't met since the 2008 NCAA Tournament, a game also won by UNC.