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Kentucky (29-8) paired a 9-2 run with an 8-0 spurt early to grab a 21-13 lead midway through the first half and took a 38-30 lead into halftime.
North Carolina scored two quick baskets out of the locker room but the Wildcats knocked down two quick 3-pointers to push their lead to 10 points. Kentucky would eventually increase that margin to 11, but UNC charged back and tied the score at 67 with 3:18 to play.
Kentucky outscored the Tar Heels 9-2 the rest of the way.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 21 points and nine rebounds, while Harrison Barnes scored 18 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Dexter Strickland added 11 points and three steals. Brandon Knight paced the Wildcats with 22 points, including a 5-of-11 shooting display from 3-point territory, and Deandre Liggins (12), Josh Harrellson (12), Terrence Jones (11) and Darius Miller (11) all scored in double figures.
North Carolina shot 43.5 percent (27-of-62, 3-of-16 3s) from the floor, while Kentucky connected on 48.2 percent of its field goal attempts (27-of-56, 12-of-22 on 3-pointers). The Tar Heels forced one more turnover than they committed (14-13), and outrebounded the Wildcats, 36-34.
INSIDE THE GAME
Wildcats On Fire From Deep
A longtime nemesis for North Carolina's basketball program has been the ability for opposing teams to get streaky hot from 3-point territory. The Tar Heels finished the ACC schedule ranked seventh in the league in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to knock down 33.1 percent.
UNC's exposure from beyond the arc can be explained in part by Roy Williams' defensive philosophy of helping to prevent penetration into the lane. Kentucky's dribble-drive offense is intended to create angles in the paint, setting the stage for two contrasting styles of play.
The Wildcats won this round by connecting on 54.5 percent (12-of-22) of their 3-pointers, including eight of their first 13.
"Their team averages 39.6 percent from the three-point line and we don't have anybody shooting better than 39.6 percent on our team," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference at the Prudential Center. "I think Kendall is 39.6 percent exactly. So their whole team shoots better than anybody on our team. And we did want to work and make sure that we got there and had a hand up and hoped that they didn't make some."
The two biggest plays of the game occurred in succession with roughly one minute to play. Marshall drove down the right side of the lane and was blocked by Liggins, who then set up in the right corner on the other end of the court. When Knight attempted to penetrate from the right wing, Marshall collapsed off Liggins and Knight found him for a wide open 3-ball that gave Kentucky a four-point lead with 37 seconds to play.
"North Carolina sucked in on our drives and we shot threes," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "It wasn't by design. I didn't go into the game saying we will shoot threes today. I didn't know they would play that way."
Foul Trouble Finally Makes an Appearance
With only three true post players on the roster, injuries and foul trouble have been lingering concerns for North Carolina throughout the entire season, but those issues never materialized – until Sunday afternoon.
John Henson picked up three fouls in the opening 14 minutes of play, forcing him to sit the final 6:39 of the first half. Prior to Sunday, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year had been saddled with three fouls in only 10 games this season and never with four.
That fourth foul arrived with 16:03 to play when Miller got Henson up in the air on a pump fake under the basket. He exited the game and didn't return until the 7:43 mark. Henson finished with four points and nine rebounds (only one offensive) in 23 minutes after nine straight double-doubles.
The sophomore entered the game needing just three blocks to set the school's single-season record, but he did not record even one.
"It hurt a lot," Henson said. "I feel like I could have helped a lot more. I've never experienced that before – it's probably one of the most frustrating things I've ever done, basketball-wise."
With Henson on the bench, Williams was forced to adjust his lineup at times, sliding Barnes to the 4-spot for a stretch in the first half.
"It definitely hurt us because it made us change what we've been doing for the past two or three months," Zeller said. "We had to change."
Preventing the Rally
North Carolina has made its mark in overcoming adversity and double-digit leads this season. Momentum swings occur when points come in a hurry, but Kentucky did a phenomenal job in preventing UNC from using a significant spurt to get back into the ball game.
The Tar Heels scored five consecutive points or more on five different occasions and four straight five other times to cut into their deficit, but the Wildcats always had an answer. Kentucky responded with a basket to end all 10 of UNC's mini-runs, with a 3-pointer being the dagger of choice six times.
The backbreaker, of course, was Knight's 3-pointer after Zeller knocked down two free throws to tie the score with 3:18 to play.
"It was very draining just seeing them do that," Henson said.