UNC-Kentucky provided taste of March Madness in December
LEXINGTON, Ky -- Let's play two.
Everybody was thinking it, and after the game most everybody said it. The calendar said December 3, but it felt like March. Actually, it felt like April. And if the basketball gods are kind, that's when North Carolina and Kentucky will meet again.
Oh, I don't mean to slight folks in Columbus or Durham or Storrs or Syracuse. Any of the teams from those burghs would be worthy Final Four entrants. Or maybe there's a Butler, VCU or George Mason in our future to make an enchanting dash through the bracket. But really, could we do much better than watching these two bluebloods go toe-the-toe again the way they did in Rupp Arena on Saturday? If LSU and Alabama can reprise their field goal show, why can't Kentucky and North Carolina lace 'em up again in the Louisiana Superdome?
History will show that No. 1 Kentucky edged No. 5 North Carolina 73-72 on Saturday in a game that wasn't decided until Anthony Davis, UK's rubber band of a freshman forward, lunged to block John Henson's 15-foot jump shot with seven seconds to play. (Kansas fans -- and Roy Williams -- could be forgiven if they suffered a momentary flashback to Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick's clinching block of Kirk Hinrich at the end of the 2003 NCAA final.) But as great as this game was, it may well end up as a footnote. "Both teams gutted it out. Just gutted it out," Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterward. "This is supposed to be in March, not now. I'm exhausted."
Several players admitted afterward that they had a suspicion that Davis's block would not be the final word. "I definitely think we'll see them again," said Kentucky senior forward Darius Miller. "We hope to be there at the end of the season in the tournament, and we're pretty sure they will be, too."
The two schools played twice last year: once during the regular season (North Carolina won 75-73 in Chapel Hill), and again in the south regional final of the NCAA tournament (Kentucky won that one, 76-69). Saturday's game was better than either of those contests.
There were lots of momentum swings but neither team pulled away. North Carolina led by five points at halftime and by six with a little over 17 minutes left in the second half. Kentucky finally went ahead with seven-and-a-half minutes to play but never led by more than five the rest of the way. Everywhere you looked on the court, you saw high-level players making high-level plays. Both squads had four players in double digits. They both shot well -- North Carolina made 41.7 percent from the floor; Kentucky shot 56 percent in the second half. Despite intense, end-to-end defensive pressure they committed a modest 22 turnovers between them. North Carolina was more efficient from behind the three-point line, sinking 61.1 percent to Kentucky's 23.5 percent, but the Wildcats made up for it by dominating the points in the paint, 36 to 14.
Ironically, it was the older, more experienced Tar Heels who lost their poise at key moments. Their best player, 6-8 sophomore Harrison Barnes, was whistled for two fouls in the first seven minutes, but Roy Williams only took Barnes out briefly and reinserted him two minutes later. With more than six minutes to play in the half, Barnes picked up his third foul on a foolish play, reaching in on UK freshman point guard Marquis Teague when he was 70 feet from the basket. Barnes scored 14 points and shot 4-for-5 from three-point range, but he didn't attempt a single free throw and only had two rebounds. If the Heels do face Kentucky again in April, Barnes is going to have to be tougher.
The Tar Heels also suffered a brain freeze in the waning seconds. In the first place, Henson would have been better off driving instead of quickly attempting a jumpshot. Said Williams, "I've always said you're better off taking it to the basket, but not many people can block a jump shot from John Henson." Inexplicably, after Davis's block, none of the North Carolina players fouled to stop the clock and force UK to ice the game from the line. That enabled to Kentucky to dribble out the final seven seconds. "That was a crazy thing," Williams said. "I'm screaming 'Foul!' but we didn't. I've got to do a better job coaching."
North Carolina could also use more of a wire-to-wire effort from senior center Tyler Zeller. He was the best player on the court during the first half, when he had 10 points and five rebounds, but after intermission Zeller scored four points and only attempted four free throws. Of course, Kentucky's interior defense had much to do with that. "They did a great job of getting to the spot almost before I got the ball," Zeller said. "Usually you need a second or half-second to see where the defense is coming from, but they wouldn't give that to me." Zeller also committed the game's costliest turnover when he fumbled a baseline inbounds pass with 1:21 to play and the Heels trailing by four.
Kentucky can get a lot better between now and April, too. Most of the growing up needs to happen at point guard, where Teague mixed daring plays with spotty decision making. He made just three of his 11 field goal attempts and missed the front end of a one-and-one with 21 seconds left and his team leading by one. If Henson had made the final shot instead of having it blocked by Davis, Teague would have been the goat. "I made Marquis Teague stand up [after the game] and hug my man there," Calipari said. "You hug Anthony because he saved you."
Kentucky's perimeter defense in the first half left much to be desired, which Calipari said drove him "nuts" because he had spent so much time trying to correct ball screens on three-point shooters. "We worked on it," he said. "Obviously not enough."
But that's the point. This game, good as it was, didn't decide anything. It was primarily a learning experience -- and the most important thing the teams learned was that they're really, really good. North Carolina lost at UNLV over Thanksgiving weekend because they had no intensity and played a porous defense. Neither was the case on Saturday. "It's crazy to say we played pretty good defensively when they shot 56 percent in the second half, but I really thought we did," Williams said. "I'm not satisfied with our play, but I am satisfied with our effort."
Kentucky, meanwhile, can emerge confident that despite its youth, it has the requisite firepower and chemistry to win a national championship. Sophomore forward Terrence Jones played like a man (14 points, seven rebounds), but when North Carolina took command midway through the second half, it was freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who rescued the Cats. Kidd-Gilchrist is not much of a long-range shooter, but his ability to slice into the lane, score around the bucket and get to the foul line proved decisive. He finished with a team-high 17 points and 11 rebounds. Kidd-Gilchrist may have been one of the youngest players on the court, but he has an old man's soul. "If we need a free throw late in the game, I'm giving him the ball and letting him shoot it," Calipari said. "He will make a free throw late because he's got that kind of courage."
The Wildcats weren't any better than the Tar Heels on Saturday. They just won -- this time. "Let's hope if we have to play them again, it will be in the very last game of the season," Calipari said. Indeed, these two teams served up quite a treat on this first Saturday in December. Imagine how much better it would taste on the first Monday in April.