Wall (16 points, seven assists, seven turnovers, five rebounds, three steals) was electrifying early on Saturday, directing his Wildcats on a 28-2 spurt that quickly transformed a competitive contest into a 30-11 margin. North Carolina appeared rattled by the hostile Rupp Arena setting in the opening stanza, as evidenced by the program’s lowest scoring output in a half (28) since totaling 27 points in the first 20 minutes of its 2008 Final Four loss to Kansas.
The Tar Heels methodically cut into the Wildcats’ lead in the second half, eventually creeping within 63-61 with 32 seconds to play. But Kentucky connected on 5-of-6 free throw attempts in the closing seconds to secure the victory.
Deon Thompson led North Carolina with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Will Graves drilled four of his seven 3-point attempts in contributing 13 points. Ed Davis added nine points and 10 rebounds.
Patrick Patterson paced Kentucky with 19 points and seven rebounds in 37 minutes.
The Wildcats outrebounded UNC, 39-37, but the Tar Heels forced five more turnovers, 21-16. North Carolina shot a season-low 38.8 percent (26-of-67) from the floor against Kentucky’s 44.4 percent (24-of-54).
INSIDE THE GAME
Dazed and Confused
The Kentucky basketball program has been yearning to be relevant once again on the national stage after watching from the sidelines for so many years, and Saturday’s matchup against the Tar Heels presented the Wildcats and first-year head coach John Calipari with an opportunity to make a defining statement.
Needless to say, Rupp Arena was rocking on a snowy afternoon in Lexington, which delivered the first intimidating road test for this inexperienced North Carolina squad. The Tar Heel veterans looked strong out of the gates, darting out to a 9-2 lead on 4-for-4 shooting and three assists.
Then the bottom fell out.
Wall grabbed a rebound off a Marcus Ginyard 3-point field goal miss and went the length of the court for a slam dunk that ignited the Wildcats’ lair. Kentucky dominated the Tar Heels over the next seven minutes and 43 seconds to the tune of a 28-2 run, knocking down 11-of-14 shots, including a trio of 3-pointers.
But the Wildcats’ spurt had more to do with UNC’s lack of composure than anything else. North Carolina aided its opponent during that early stretch with eight turnovers and poor shot selection.
“We weren’t very patient in the first half,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters in his postgame press conference. “We made a couple of 3’s early and then all of a sudden Kentucky’s defense became more aggressive. And when Kentucky’s defense became more aggressive, we panicked and we took quicker shots. We didn’t get the basketball inside and even when we did get it inside, we didn’t make an aggressive move.”
Kentucky’s bigs began fronting the Tar Heels’ post players, taking away Carolina’s primary scoring threats. After Thompson connected on his first two field goal attempts in UNC’s initial 9-2 run, the senior only took two other shots in the first half, missing both.
The result was a hurried offense that appeared stagnant at times as the perimeter options struggled to create their own scoring opportunities.
“They definitely were physical with us and maybe pushed us off our position where we wanted to catch the ball,” Thompson said. “And their guards did a great job of pressuring our guards, which made it difficult to get us the ball. That first 20 minutes they definitely imposed their will on us.”
The John Wall Show
Of course, a significant portion of the credit for Kentucky’s 28-2 run rests on John Wall’s shoulders. The Raleigh native displayed why many considered him the nation’s top incoming freshman entering the 2009-10 season, combining a embarrassment of riches in height, speed and talent to lead his squad to a stunning 19-point first-half lead against North Carolina.
As noted above, Wall’s coast-to-coast slam dunk energized Rupp Arena and his Wildcat teammates after falling behind 9-2, and the freshman followed that play with a near-identical full-court transition on the ensuing possession. UNC became so consumed with stopping Wall’s penetration that its help defense laid off Kentucky’s perimeter options, allowing for several wide-open looks for Darius Miller and Darnell Dodson.
If crowd reaction is any indication, consider that Wall received a standing ovation when Eric Bledsoe subbed in for him at the 8:44 mark of the first half with Kentucky holding a 29-11 lead.
“I thought he dominated the game,” Williams said. “We talked about trying to slow him down and getting some help for our point guard and I didn’t feel like we did a very good job of that… He really attacks you. And he attacks you with 6-4 size and long arms and great quickness.”
Cramps limited Wall after intermission – probably the primary reason UNC was able to cut its deficit to two twice down the stretch – but he still made several big plays, including stripping Davis on what should have been an easy dunk with 1:59 left to play and Kentucky leading 61-56.
Rally Falls Short
After Ramon Harris’ second-half-opening dunk gave his Wildcats a 45-28 margin, North Carolina utilized a 10-0 spurt to cut its deficit to seven and give itself a chance over the final 16 minutes of action.
The Tar Heels eventually whittled away until Kentucky’s lead was 59-56 with 4:29 left after a Tyler Zeller jump shot, but UNC went scoreless in its next three possessions, allowing the Wildcats to build a 63-56 lead with 1:55 remaining.
Despite a strong defensive effort in holding Kentucky to 29 percent shooting (9-of-31) over the final 24 minutes, UNC’s inability to capitalize down the stretch prevented what would have been an impressive comeback.
Thompson highlighted the keys necessary to take advantage of a similar opportunity that may arise in the coming months.
“Repetition, practice and concentration,” Thompson said. “Just continue to get the reps in and continue to practice in situations just like this. Just learn from it and get more confident in [those situations]. You get better and you learn from them. A game like this will help us when March and April comes.”