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UNC drops the ball against Kentucky, 80-72

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Heels fumble chance at second straight statement win.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at North Carolina David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina took a big step backwards one week after a big win with a 80-72 defeat to Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic on Saturday night in Chicago, IL. Seemingly none of the Heels could hold onto the ball long enough to threaten the Wildcats, and Carolina wasted a decent defensive effort in losing its third game of the still-young season.

Wildcats freshman guard Keldon Johnson led the victors with 23 points. Senior forward and Stanford transfer Reid Travis added 20 points and six rebounds, while freshman guard Tyler Herro chipped in 15 points, four rebounds, and five assists.

Kentucky built a 40-31 halftime advantage and Carolina never led by more than three points – at 15-12 for one minute early on. The Wildcats bullied the Heels on the backboards with a 43-33 tally, earning 10 offensive rebounds to Carolina’s five.

Somehow, UNC committed only 17 turnovers, but it felt more like 170. It was not the best day for freshman point guard Coby White, who was charged with only three giveaways, but all of which came at critical junctures. White was also just 3-of-11 from the field to finish with eight points.

Arguably the sequence of the game was with just over six minutes remaining. Following a strong defensive stop with the Heels trailing 66-60, White weakly handled the ball in the backcourt and turned it over, leading to a backbreaking 3 by Wildcats freshman guard P.J. Washington.

That was the theme of the day for Carolina. Keldon Johnson had drilled a couple of demoralizing long balls under similar circumstances just a couple of minutes earlier, as the Heels repeatedly could not get out of their own way.

UNC’s Johnson, senior guard Cameron Johnson, did his best to keep the Heels afloat, leading the team with 17 points. The only other Carolina players in double figures were the two fellow seniors, forward Luke Maye with 16 points and guard Kenny Williams with 11.

Johnson misfired on a long three-pointer with UK’s lead at 75-67 with 2:29 to play, which represented Carolina’s last realistic chance to pull off a late comeback.

The final nail in the coffin, though, came with just under a minute to play. Travis missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Wildcats still holding onto an eight-point edge, but not a single Carolina player went after the ball and Washington grabbed a crucial offensive rebound. It was a lazy miscue that epitomized the entire outing.

UNC looked alright early on, as both teams opened 11-of-26 from the field, but the game dragged to a lull in the middle of the first half with fouls and sloppy play. The Wildcats committed 18 turnovers of their own, but their miscues appeared not to backfire as often and they kept their focus better than the fumbling Heels.

Kentucky also did a strong job of limiting Carolina’s perimeter offense. The Heels were able to make a solid percentage of three-pointers (36.8%), but were only 7-of-19 as Cameron Johnson and others were routinely unable to find enough space to launch.

Carolina did not discover much of an attack elsewhere. Kentucky freshman guard Ashton Higgins shook off an early ankle injury to record a staggering seven steals, several of which were good plays and others that could fairly be attributed to the Heels’ carelessness. The Wildcats pushed the UNC offense out to disrupt spacing, and the Heels in turn couldn’t capitalize on getting a couple of key Kentucky players into further foul trouble.

UNC began each half with a painstaking turnover. In the first, sophomore forward Garrison Brooks flipped a pass to the wing that was intercepted for an easy dunk. To begin the second, White drove to the hoop and had the ball stripped off his leg. The Heels also made sure to add a night cap giveaway with 15.2 seconds left, when Coach Roy Williams then waved the white flag and substituted in the reserve mob.

The Wildcats didn’t score their first bench points until the 11:06 mark of the second half, but it didn’t seem to matter. A Carolina defense that held tough early started to leak some, especially when Brooks had to go to the bench in foul trouble and Kentucky took advantage with several lob plays.

Still, a sloppy UNC offense and lackluster rebounding were the main culprits on this day. The Heels shot only 42% from the field in a marquee showdown in the House that Jordan Built, and relinquished most of the goodwill from outlasting Gonzaga in the Smith Center last Saturday night.

UNC returns to action next Saturday, Dec. 29, at noon in a home matchup against Davidson.