Talk about a great, nail-biting, frustrating game.
UNC came out strong, despite Kentucky's defense focusing on double-teaming Tyler Zeller inside, and consequently Zeller turning the ball over entirely too often. The Heels took advantage of some poor Kentucky shooting, settled down and responded with a barrage of three-pointers themselves. The Heels made six of nine threes in the first half, and most with Harrison Barnes on the bench with three fouls. P.J. Hairston was particularly hot, hitting 3 of 4 shots, but would not take another after the 14-minute mark of the second half. Kendall Marshall also fired a pair in, since the Kentucky defense was playing way off of him most of the game.
While Carolina was draining them from the outside, Kentucky was ice cold. So they retreated to playing offense like UNC does, relying heavily on fast breaks and interior play. Four of their first five buckets were layups and dunks, and Terrence Jones, much improved from his previous meetings with the Heels, was scoring at will. Jones would have fourteen points in the first half, leading all scorers. And yet UNC led by as many as nine, and was all set to take a seven-point lead into the break, except John Henson would botch a fast break dunk as time expired. Still, to lead at the half by five in Rupp Arena is no small feat.
Then came the second half, where the play changed on both sides. Terrence Jones was completely shut down, held scoreless in the second half and pulling down only one offensive rebound. On defense however, he came alive, finishing with three blocks and two steals. UNC also abandoned it's perimeter shooting a few minutes in. After Kendall Marshall pulled up in the lane on a fast break to give the Heels a 56-52 lead with fourteen and a half to play, Carolina wouldn't score for over five minutes, a stretch that included a Dexter Strickland missed dunk. The defense kept them in the game, and they didn't give up the lead in that stretch, but it still hurt.
Kentucky finally found their groove soon after, ditching the entry pass and perimeter game for dribble penetration. And like last year, Doron Lamb led the way, taking most of the Wildcats' shots after the Marshall basket. Two layups and a pair of threes, coupled with some bad fouls – with "bad" equally distributed to the Tar Heel players and the refs – and UNC was suddenly down five at the last TV timeout.
Give Carolina credit though, as they didn't fold. Harrison Barnes responded with a three, his fourth and final one of his 14 point-performance. Darius Miller responded with a jumper of his own, and then both teams traded free throws to keep the lead at four. And with fifty seconds to play, Reggie Bullock hit the Tar Heels' eleventh three of the game cutting it to a one-point lead.
Kentucky's next time down the court ended with the ticky-tackiest of fouls on Kendall Marshall. It was for the best, however, as Marquis Teague missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving the Heels' the ball and the chance to win. And if you haven't seen the closing moments, it's only a matter of time. No, they didn't call a timeout. No, Harrison Barnes did not get the ball. It was an entry pass to Zeller, who once again didn't get a handle on it; the ball spurted out to Henson, whose jumper was blocked by Davis, paralyzing the team and ending the game.
There's a lot to like about Carolina's performance today. The perimeter shooting was fantastic. The interior game struggled, but the Heels responded, pulling down thirteen offensive rebounds. There were a few too many turnovers, especially to Kentucky steals, and a couple of defensive lapses that cost Carolina. And, of course, folks will be kicking themselves over those pair of missed dunks for quite some time. But overall, it was a good performance and one that bodes well for how this team is coming together. And a one-point loss on the road is nothing to sneeze at.
But when the win is that close...