Rarely does a sporting event live up its pregame hype, but when that does happen, it makes for an epic showcase. That's what transpired at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Kentucky (8-0) opened the game with a 9-3 run to ignite the 24,398 fans in attendance, but UNC (6-2) answered with an 11-2 spurt to grab a 14-11 lead. The Tar Heels slowly increased that lead to 28-20 and took a 43-38 lead into halftime.
The Wildcats overlapped the break with a 10-2 run to tie the score at 45. UNC responded with a pair of 3-pointers by Kendall Marshall (8 points, 8 assists) and Harrison Barnes (14 points, 4-of-5 3-pointers) to increase its lead to 51-45, but a Kentucky 7-0 spurt gave the Wildcats their first lead of the second half at 52-51.
The teams exchanged leads eight times on the day, including three times in the second half. Kentucky used another 10-2 run to take a 66-62 lead with 5:39 to play. North Carolina rallied and cut its deficit to 73-72 on Reggie Bullock's 3-pointer from the corner with 49 seconds to play, but Davis's block ultimately secured the victory for the Wildcats.
Zeller scored 14 points and pulled down eight rebounds for UNC, while P.J. Hairston (11 pts) and John Henson (10 pts, 8 rebs) also reached double figures. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led Kentucky with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb each added 14 points.
North Carolina shot 41.7 percent (25-of-60) including a 61.1 percent mark from 3-point range (11-of-18), while Kentucky connected on 44.4 percent (28-of-63) of its attempts.
Kentucky won the rebounding battle, 38-36.
INSIDE THE GAME
The Final 21 Seconds
When Marquis Teague missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 21 seconds left, North Carolina found itself with an opportunity to win the game on the final play.
Roy Williams indicated that his play call had three options – a pick-and-roll, a side screen for a jump shot and penetration into the lane by Marshall. But the sophomore point guard knew exactly where he was going with the ball as he dribbled down the court.
"We were running a pick-and-roll," Marshall said. "I told ‘Z' right when I came off the pick-and-roll, ‘Seal your man, I'm trying to get you a touch.'"
Williams wanted to get a shot up with five or six seconds left on the clock to allow for a second-chance opportunity, so Marshall threw the ball into Zeller as the clock slid under the 10-second mark.
Zeller caught the pass, but the Wildcats knocked the ball away – directly into Henson's hands 10 feet from the basket. The junior elevated for a jumper, but Davis made the game-winning block with :07 remaining.
"I've always said if the score is tied or it's a one-point game, you're probably better off taking it to the basket, but not many people can block a jump shot from John Henson," Williams said.
As devastating as that play was, UNC still had plenty of time to make a quick foul and get the ball back for a last-second shot. But no one fouled despite the coaching staff screaming from the sideline to foul.
Williams took the blame in his postgame press conference, but his star player had a different opinion.
"That's just poor execution," Barnes said. "Guys need to know the clock and that you can foul. If they don't, they're going to win the game."
In the loss to UNLV last Saturday, several players used the word "panicked" in describing how the team handled the late-game situation. That makes two games – both losses – in eight days that the Tar Heels showcased a lack of experience down the stretch.
Controlling the Paint
Williams only needed one sentence to sum up Saturday's loss: "They dominated us a little more in the paint area than I thought they would."
What's interesting is that UNC's post tandem of Henson and Zeller outscored their Kentucky counterparts of Davis and Jones, 24-21. Where the Wildcats were successful was in their ability to penetrate and create in the lane.
Kentucky's backcourt and wings attempted 23 shots in the paint, compared with nine attempts from UNC's guards and wings. In the second half, the Wildcats converted 11 baskets in the paint, compared to just four by UNC.
The result was a significant disparity in the second-half field goal percentages – Kentucky shot 56.0 percent while North Carolina shot 34.5 percent.
"They shot 56 percent in the second half, so they were a little more patient with it than we were and that's the reason they were able to come from behind and get the lead," Williams said.
Hairston, Bullock Provide Bench Support
Hairston and Bullock have displayed plenty of potential in stroking the ball from deep, combining to knock down 44.6 percent (25-of-56) of their 3-pointers this season. But outside observers have been waiting to see if they could hold up under the pressure of a national stage like they would encounter at Rupp Arena.
The duo not only held up, but they thrived under the spotlight.
Hairston (11 pts, 3-of-4 on 3-pointers) drained two treys in his first tour off the bench to give UNC a 22-16 lead with 11:22 remaining. When Kentucky engineered a 7-0 spurt to take its first lead of the second half, Hairston knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Tar Heels back on top, 54-52.
Thirty seconds after Barnes exited the game with his third foul in the first half, Jones drilled a 3-pointer to wake up the crowd and inch Kentucky to within 34-30, but Bullock (8 pts, 2-of-5 on 3-pointers) responded two possessions later with a trey to push the lead back to seven. And with 49 seconds left to play, Marshall found Bullock set up in transition for a critical 3-pointer that cut the Wildcats deficit to 73-72.
"That's key – we definitely need them to do that all this year," Barnes said. "Just come out and stretch the floor for us, so that it makes it easy to penetrate. I thought those two played great today."