“We wanted to come out early and let them know that our pressure was something to be reckoned with,” said Rashad McCants, who scored 20 of his game- and season-high 28 points before halftime.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said before the game he didn’t want to let UNC control the tempo. But when he had to use a timeout just two minutes into the game trailing 8-0, and then saw his team go into the first called TV break behind 24-8; he had already realized there was nothing that was going to slow Carolina’s relentless defense and punishing fast break.
“We allowed them to control the tempo from the start,” Smith said. “The biggest thing we concentrated on was transition defense. We were very poor at that all day long, giving up layups after layups.”
UK would go on a 7-1 run to get back within 10 points moments later, and would continue to take advantage of Carolina droughts in the first half while Raymond Felton sat due to foul trouble. Yet, when Rashad McCants nailed a 3-pointer, one in which he first had to dial one plus the area code to deliver, UNC led 35-19 with five minutes to go in the first half.
Carolina was never able to completely run and hide as it did in its three wins in Maui and Sunday’s dismantling of Southern Cal, but it did manage to keep a working margin of six points or better throughout the remainder of the contest.
“We were very, very happy about the way we played during stretches,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But they made two or three 3’s in a row and made us a little more uncomfortable than I had hoped we were going to be.”
The Tar Heels (6-1) have now scored 90 or more points in four of their last five games.
With the win, UNC avenged four straight losses to the Wildcats (4-1) in what has become an annual battle between the two winningest teams in college basketball history. They will fulfill their current six-game, home-and-home contract next year in Lexington.
McCants connected on 4-of-7 from 3-point range and 7-of-8 from the free throw line.
“Rashad accomplished more in a couple of minutes of this game then he did the whole game [last year at Kentucky],” Williams said.
However, a 9-0 run by the Wildcats to start the second half cut the Carolina lead to six points before McCants could score underneath to stop the bleeding. Then back-to-back dunks and a layup by Sean May again pushed the lead back to double-digits.
Later, Marvin Williams’ first 3-pointer of his career turned back yet another second-half rally by Kentucky.
If McCants was the star of the fist half, May was a deciding factor in the second. After an eight-point outing three days earlier at Indiana, he recovered to tally 14 points and 19 rebounds. It was May’s second “double-double” of the season and the 17th of his career. As a team, UNC out-rebounded Kentucky 51-30.
“The first half was a little slow for me, but I’m happy with how we played,” May said. “I don’t care how I did. We got a great win against a great team. I’m just happy we got a ‘W.’”
Jawad Williams, who has scored in double figures in every game this year, added 19 points and seven rebounds.
Kentucky has now held 26 of its last 30 opponents under 50 percent shooting – but just barely, as Carolina was good for 49.2 percent of its field goal attempts. The Tar Heels were 6-of-13 from beyond the arc.
“I would like to have made one more to shoot 50 percent to stop Tubby’s streak,” Roy Williams said.
In the end, the Wildcats didn’t have enough fouls to slow Felton, who managed seven assists; but more importantly orchestrated the pace of the game, while his sore left wrist continued to bother him. Three UK players were eventually disqualified, as Kentucky committed 15 more fouls than UNC.
“That was our biggest problem, just fouling people down low and not containing people off the dribble,” Smith said.
The Tar Heels, which played their first seven games in 14 days and just two at home, will now get some time off during exam break. The toughness of their schedule eases off some when they return as well, with Loyola (Ill.), Virginia Tech, Vermont, UNC-Wilmington, Cleveland State and William & Mary making up UNC’s next list of opponents.