Tar Heels have found their hustle as calendar nears March

Tar Heels roll past Louisville (0:37)

No. 14 North Carolina cruises to victory behind Joel Berry II's 23 points while Theo Pinson and Luke Mayo each drop 19 in a 96-76 win over Louisville. (0:37)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Nobody in North Carolina's locker room needs to peek at the calendar. The Tar Heels know that March is fast approaching, and that's the way they're playing right now.

Louisville coach David Padgett went a step further Saturday night when describing the Tar Heels.

"When they're shooting the ball like that, it's going to take a heck of a night to beat them," said Padgett, who shared his sentiment with North Carolina coach Roy Williams after the Tar Heels extended their winning streak to five straight games with a 93-76 dissection of the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center.

But here's perhaps the scariest part for the rest of the ACC: Not only are the Tar Heels shooting the ball well, they're starting to do a little bit of everything well, especially the things that win grind-it-out games come March. Right at the top of that list is a blend of rebounding, scrapping for every loose ball and making the kind of effort plays that take a team that was spinning its wheels in the ACC three weeks ago to one that now has an excellent chance of finishing in the top four and securing a double bye in the ACC tournament.

"This is when we always get it going, ever since I've been here," North Carolina senior swingman Theo Pinson said. "We know what time it is."

The Tar Heels (21-7, 10-5 ACC) have been a different team since limping to a 4-5 finish in the month of January. They've yet to lose in February. No play in Saturday's win -- their first over Louisville in a true road game -- epitomized what this North Carolina team has become better than senior guard Joel Berry II racing back on defense to block the shot of Louisville's Ray Spalding when it looked as if the 6-foot-10 Spalding was going to hammer home a dunk to cut the Tar Heels' lead to six points with 2:31 to play.

Luke Maye answered a few seconds later with a 3-pointer for North Carolina, triggering a 10-1 run to close the game.

"I hustled back and tried to make a play on it," Berry said. "Those are the plays that set you apart, and those are the plays that win championships."

Berry finished with 23 points, including five 3-pointers, but he said it's the effort plays that have become contagious for this team.

"When that ball is loose, it has our name written all over it," Berry said. "Earlier in the year, some of those balls weren't going our way. Those plays may not show up in the stats, but they're the difference in winning and losing."

Of course, it doesn't hurt to go 12-of-27 from 3-point range -- making 6 of 8 to start the game -- and then topping it off by outscoring the Cardinals 22-6 on second-chance points.

"If we're playing North Carolina basketball, it's hard to beat us either way," North Carolina junior guard Kenny Williams said. "But when you throw in 12 3s, it makes it that much harder because it opens up everything else. With us, if we're shooting the ball well and doing everything else we're supposed to do, you kind of have to pick your poison.

"You gotta have one of your best nights to beat us."

Williams finding his shot has also helped. In North Carolina's three-game losing streak to close the month of January, he scored a total of 14 points. During the Tar Heels' five-game winning streak, he's averaging 14.2 points. They're also now 18-2 when he scores in double figures.

"It's a lot different when the ball is going in, and the ball is going in right now," said Williams, who's 15-of-29 from 3-point range these last five games. "Nobody lost confidence in me when I was shooting 25 percent. It was only a matter of time before I got myself going again, and they continue to look for me."

The big rap on the Tar Heels during the first half of the season was that they didn't have an imposing inside presence. But they've used their smaller lineup as an advantage and are carving teams apart with second-chance points and easy transition baskets with all five players capable of leading the fast break.

"We're using our quickness," said Pinson, one of the most versatile players in the country. "With those big guys, it's hard to find us and we're moving around them and getting the loose balls bouncing long that we're quick enough to get to, especially with me at the 4, and that gives us extra possessions."

In vintage Roy Williams vernacular, he said he has been emphasizing the "dickens" out of rebounding.

Pinson flashed a wide grin when asked what exactly that meant.

"You do it or you don't play," he said. "That's the bottom line. The last key to the game he wrote on the board was rebounding. ... The ball goes up, and we hear his voice."

If the Tar Heels looked even fresher Saturday, there might have been a reason. The coach gave them Tuesday and Wednesday off last week after playing three ACC games in a span of five days.

"The second day off felt so weird, but you saw how guys brought it to game day," said Pinson, adding that he can't remember the last time they got back-to-back days off during the season.

The other thing North Carolina has going for it is that this is a veteran team. All five starters are either seniors or juniors, which is increasingly rare in the blue-blood world of college basketball.

"We've always been a really good team," said Maye, who had 19 points and 13 rebounds (six offensive rebounds). "We've had some games where we haven't come out and guarded the 3 well or rebounded well, and it's hurt us. But we've continued to play together, and everything is coming together at just the right time."

In other words, March is just around the corner.