Kentucky (5-2) built a 25-17 lead midway through the first half behind 11 of Doron Lamb's 24 points, but Harrison Barnes responded by flashing his potential with an assist to John Henson for a dunk and then scoring seven straight points on a 3-pointer and a pair of highlight reel slams to move UNC (5-3) back out front 26-25.
These two programs essentially went back and forth for the remainder of the game, as Kentucky took a 42-40 advantage into halftime and claimed its largest second-half lead at 57-51 with 11:43 left to play. The Tar Heels retook the lead on a Henson free throw with 3:04 remaining and increased that margin to three points twice in the final 21 seconds.
Henson complemented Zeller's performance with 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, while Barnes added 12 points and four rebounds. Brandon Knight scored 15 points but committed six turnovers for the Wildcats, and Darius Miller posted 13 points and seven rebounds.
North Carolina shot 41.4 percent (24-of-58, 1-of-11 on 3-pointers) from the floor, while holding Kentucky to 38.7 percent shooting (24-of-62, 9-of-21 on 3-pointers). The Tar Heels outrebounded their opponent, 43-37.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Career Day for No. 44
If there was one bad thing that happened to Tyler Zeller on Saturday, it's that his parents never made it to Chapel Hill after mechanical problems grounded their plane out of Indiana in the early morning hours.
But after Zeller's standout performance against the Wildcats, UNC head coach Roy Williams put a humorous spin on the ordeal, telling his junior 7-footer, "It may be the last game your mom and dad ever get to come see."
Zeller's 27 points and 11 rebounds were both career highs, while his five blocks tied his career mark. He scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the second half, including a 10-for-10 display at the free throw line during the final 4:19 of regulation.
On four of those five trips, Zeller stepped to the line with North Carolina trailing. His last trip built UNC's lead to three points with 10 seconds to play.
"[Since] last spring, I've talked to him and he understood that we need him to step up and be the big-time player I think he can be, and I think he was that today," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
The Tar Heels have spent the better part of the last 13 months looking for someone to lean on in clutch situations, but at the Smith Center against Kentucky, there was no doubt who UNC was working to get the ball to in the closing minutes.
"Tonight was my night to be able to step up," Zeller said. "Obviously, in every big game you've got to have somebody that steps up. I'm not saying it's going to be me every time, but tonight was my night."
Containing the Cats
John Calipari is once again leaning on freshmen to lead his Wildcats squad in Lexington, as forward Terrance Jones (20.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and point guard Brandon Knight (17.3 ppg) entered Saturday's contest as two of the top-10 scorers in the SEC.
Knight lived up to his hype in the first half, scoring 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting (3-of-4 on 3-pointers) in directing the dribble-drive offense. But Larry Drew ratcheted up his defensive intensity after the break and effectively shut down the McDonald's All-American (1-of-6 shooting, two assists, four turnovers in 2nd half).
Knight's lone bucket was a tough 15-foot jumper over Drew in the closing seconds.
"The coaches have always been telling me, ‘It all starts with you in the backcourt,'" Drew said. "We made a run and I honestly felt like my pressure in the backcourt is what set the tone for everybody else and everybody just basically feeds off what I do."
Jones didn't even have the luxury of a decent first half. The Portland, Ore. native scored nine points on 3-of-17 shooting with the long and lanky Henson draped over him.
"I think sometimes when my match-up shoots the ball, they're not used to seeing an arm so close to their shot and I think that affects them too,' Henson said. "... I'm going to give you the scouting report: 'Camp on his left hand, he's a one-on-one player, don't foul him going right and contain and box him' -- and that's what we did. Coach Haase said it perfectly. That's what I had in mind, that's what I remembered and that's what I did."
Kentucky utilized a small lineup at times with Jones at the five spot due to foul trouble, and while his athleticism posed some problems, the Tar Heels' size handily won the match-up.
"We tried to use John on him because John's size would bother everybody," Williams said. "In the first half, we didn't double him. In the second half, if he got the ball against anyone other than John, we were going to double him in the post. But [Zeller] did a nice job on him as well. He's hard to guard because he can step out and make 3-point shots…
"Our defense on him was important, and our defense on Brandon was important, too, because they're really gifted."
Charity at Long Last
North Carolina entered this week ranked 12th in the ACC and 277th nationally in free throw percentage (62.4) and that statistic dropped to 61.0 percent after an 8-of-17 performance at Illinois on Tuesday.
The Tar Heels appeared to be abiding by the status quo through the first 26 minutes against Kentucky, connecting on 10 of their 18 free throw attempts (55.6 percent). But as the pressure mounted and the game clock evaporated, the hoop apparently enlarged for the boys in blue. UNC knocked down 16 of its final 19 free throw attempts, including 14-of-16 over the final 4:19.