Well that was a bit of improvement. An actual win over a name opponent, of course, is a step up for the team this season, but to do so with defense and tough interior play, two things that weren't expected to be strong suits this year, is an encouraging sign. And we need encouraging signs, because there are still a lot of vicious flaws in this team.
But good things first. Kentucky came in led by a freshman, Terrence Jones, who was averaging a double-double and had a habit of steamrolling his opponents. And John Henson completely flummoxed him. By the time Jones left the game with his fifth foul, he'd only managed nine points and six rebounds. He didn't have any help down low, either. Fellow forwards Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas also fouled out, with a combined four points between them. The big thing, however, was how the Heels denied the Wildcats offensive boards, holding them to a season-low six. With few second chances, their sub-40% shooting doomed Kentucky; despite some incredible guard play from players you wouldn't expect.
So yes, in every aspect – save Henson's horrible, horrible free throw shooting – Henson and Tyler Zeller did everything that could be asked of them, dominating the paint, both reaching double-doubles and racking up 8 blocks between them. Zeller's 27 points and perfect free throw shooting down the stretch was a key engine when things could have gone off the rails. Al of which makes it especially maddening that with the game on the line and under three minutes to play, UNC stopped trying to get it inside. A quick timeout gave Roy Williams the time to correct that, but still, this should be second nature by this point.
Now for the bad. Turnovers are still a problem, no matter who is running the point. Today's game was a bit of improvement, though. Three-point shooting was a dismal 1 of 11, and the guards contributed a mere 17 points to UNC's score. They did a better job on defense, hounding Brandon Knight into six turnovers and keeping him off his shooting game. The only folks who did have a hot hand for the Wildcats were Darius Miller and Doron Lamb, the latter no one would have expected coming into the game to have the hot hand.
There was even a brief glimpse of the Harrison Barnes we've all been waiting for, as he had a solo 7-0 run against Kentucky in the first, finishing with a impressive follow-up dunk. It wouldn't last, as he fell back into his hesitant shooting in the second half, but the more his play breaks through his head, the better he'll become.
This was a good, if ugly, win for Carolina, and one they need after failing their first three tests of the season. This was the last one before finals, and hopefully it's a spark the team can build on. It may be a painful season at times, but as long they keep improving at this rate, I can accept it.