CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Four seconds still loom large in the North Carolina locker room -- 4.7 seconds to be exact.
That's how much time remained with the score tied against Villanova in the national championship game last season. The Tar Heels relive losing on Kris Jenkins' 3-pointer without being prompted, and they don't want to forget it either.
"We have a lot of guys who returned from that moment," UNC guard Joel Berry II said. "I just think about it all the time. Four seconds made a difference in my life. I wish I could get those four seconds back, but I can't, and that's what's motivating me to get back to that point."
The Tar Heels took a step toward that goal with Wednesday's 74-63 win over Louisville. Thanks to Duke's 78-75 loss at Syracuse, Carolina now owns a two-game lead in the ACC standings over the Cardinals, Blue Devils, Florida State and Notre Dame with only three games left.
This season's ACC champion is almost certain to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. No other conference is as deep, and none matched the ACC's five teams in the NCAA's in-season top 16 seeds earlier this month.
Beginning in 1979, Carolina has been a No. 1 seed 15 times in the tournament. All four of its national titles since then and five additional Final Four appearances have come when it has earned a 1-seed.
That's how important it is for the Heels. But they're not ready to raise a banner just yet with a dreaded Saturday-Monday pairing of road games at Pittsburgh and at Virginia before closing at home against Duke on March 4.
"We're getting ready to go on one of those trips I don't think any team in our league should have to do," coach Roy Williams said. "I feel good that we're on top -- I'd rather be on top than third, seventh or 15th -- but there's still a lot of work to do."
About that work.
The unbalanced league schedule worked in their favor in that the Heels didn't have road trips to Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida State or Syracuse. Carolina has risen to first place by being the most consistent team in the ACC, not necessarily the most dominant. Junior forward Justin Jackson believes that’s a good thing, because there is still room to grow.
"I can't even say that we've played our best basketball yet," said Jackson, who led the Heels with 21 points. "Being able to win games like we've won these past two games is big. It's really big."
Of all the flaws that have been exposed by playing the league's grueling schedule, the Heels can rely on the fact that even when they're not shooting well, they still have a chance because of their offensive rebounding.
Louisville held Carolina to just 37.1 percent shooting from the field -- its lowest in a win this season. The Heels entered the game just 2-2 in games in which they have shot worse than 40 percent from the field.
The Heels recorded 16 offensive boards against the Cardinals. It resulted in only eight second-chance points, but armed with the lead for most of the game, it kept the ball away from Louisville.
"They do things offensively that are very difficult to stop because of their offensive rebounding," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "It's an offense unto itself. It's probably as potent as anything they do. But they're a great team, and they're going to go a long way. They've got a lot of great days ahead of them."
Carolina entered the game with a 76.4 percent chance of winning at least a share of the league title, according to the College Basketball Power Index. It also entered with an overall BPI of No. 2.
It's just another reminder for the Heels that they still have work to do.
"My ultimate goal is to win a national championship, and I know that's the same for my teammates, and to be able to do that, this is the time where we just have to lock in," Berry said. "Every time we go out, whether it's practice or just shootaround, no matter what it is, we have to remember those four seconds."