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UNC Basketball vs. Kentucky: A History

Here are the games that have defined the rivalry between two of college basketball’s winningest programs


The names are synonymous with college basketball. Smith and Rupp. Jordan, Worthy, Jamison, and Hansbrough. Givens, Mashburn, Delk, and Davis. Williams and Calipari. The Four Corners and The Untouchables. Tar Heels and Wildcats.

Two of the three winningest programs in college basketball will meet on Saturday for the 40th time. Along with Kansas and UCLA, the teams from Lexington and Chapel Hill lay claim to being the sport’s original blue bloods. From the days of Adolph Rupp and Frank McGuire, these teams have been at the very pinnacle of college basketball and their on-again off-again rivalry has had some classic (and occasionally season-defining) games.

Here are 10 signature games in the history of Carolina-Kentucky:

March 19th, 1977- The Four Corners’ Finest Hour

Any Carolina fan (or college basketball fan in general) worth their salt knows about the Four Corners offense. The most infuriating style of basketball known to man was never more infuriating (to an opponent) or more effective than in the 1977 Elite Eight. The ‘77 Tar Heels were in the midst of their injury-ridden ride to the National Championship Game. Phil Ford, playing with a hyper-extended elbow, only managed 2 points in 15 minutes. Walter Davis had a broken hand. Tommy LaGarde was in crutches on the sideline.

Despite their casualties, and the fact that Joe B. Hall’s Kentucky was a powerful squad led by Jack Givens and Rick Robey, the Tar Heels surged out to a first half lead. But with the Cats making a charge with 15 minutes left in the 2nd half, Dean Smith employed Four Corners. With Ford, the greatest to ever run it, injured, Smith put the game in the hands of backup guard John Kuester. It worked: Kuester finished with 19 points, most of them either layups or at the line, and Davis had 21, nearly all of them wide open. Givens led the Wildcats with 21.

The Tar Heels won 79-72 and advanced to the Final Four. The Cats, fueled by the maddening loss, would return to win it all the following season.

December 26th, 1981 - #1 vs. #2

Boxing Day, 1981 featured a showdown in the Meadowlands between the two top teams in America and, for the most part, it was no contest. The #1 Tar Heels cruised to an 82-69 win over the second-ranked Wildcats. The Heels were led by 26 points from James Worthy and 21 points and 11 rebounds by Sam Perkins. They also got 19 from a freshman guard named Jordan, who was playing in just his sixth game as a Tar Heel.

Kentucky’s inability to stop the Heels on the interior was largely due to the absence of (WARNING: If you’re a Portland Trail Blazer fan, stop reading right now) the injured star big man Sam Bowie. Oddly enough, this was not the last time Michael Jordan was great and Sam Bowie was hurt.

March 25th, 1995 - Tar Heels Win A Rough Elite Eight

The moment most fans remember from the showdown between Rick Pitino’s Cats and Dean Smith’s Heels was that of Rasheed Wallace throwing an elbow at Andre Riddick after a tie up and Riddick grabbing him around the neck. If it’s not that moment (and the bizarre technical called on Walter McCarty instead of Riddick in the aftermath), it’s the fact that deep and talented Kentucky couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn that night in Birmingham.

Dean’s plan had been to blanket sharpshooter Tony Delk on the perimeter and make the other Wildcats beat them shooting the ball. They...didn’t. Kentucky went 7-36 from the three and the Heels, behind Donald Williams and Jerry Stackhouse (both 18 points), survived UK’s pressure defense to grind out a 74-61 win, which culminated with two salt-in-the-wound dunks by UNC in the closing seconds.

Once again, Kentucky would bounce back from an Elite Eight loss to the Heels to come back and win it all the next year.

January 1st, 2004 - Roy’s First Game

Roy Williams had the Tar Heels back in the national discussion. Ranked #9 in the country, the Heels were looking for Roy’s first win over a top-10 team as head coach of UNC. A fella named Gerald Fitch had something to say about that. The Heels jumped out to a double digit lead early in the second half put UK, led by Fitch, came storming back. The two sides traded baskets in the closing minutes before Fitch nailed a game-clinching three with 23 seconds left. The Cats won 61-56.

Fitch finished with 21 points, while UNC was led by Melvin Scott with 16. UNC’s leading scorer, a certain swing wearing #32, was shut down and held to just 4 points, his worst outing of the year. Carolina’s close loss was a trend all season long.

December 3rd, 2005 - Young Heels Pull off the Shocker

The 2005-06 season began with wildly different expectations between the two teams. UNC, the defending national champions, had lost their seven leading scorers and were unranked and unheralded coming into Lexington. The Cats, meanwhile, had a talented core of sophomores led by Rajon Rondo and Randolph Morris.

But the underdog Tar Heels jumped out to a 44-32 halftime lead over the #10 Wildcats and held on for an 83-79 win. Reyshawn Terry had his best game as a Tar Heel with 25 points, and Rondo led UK with 20. This win was a hint of things to come for both teams: UNC had a money-in-the-wash season that no one saw coming, while the Cats has a largely disappointing campaign that ended in the 2nd round.

December 5th, 2009 - The Bluegrass Becomes Blue-Chip

The game that launched the John Calipari Era. Cal had come to Lexington that year, promising a rebuild behind the star-studded class that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. UNC, the defending champs, were a chance for the Cats to make a statement. Somewhere in the scintillating 28-2 run that Kentucky went on in the first half (perhaps when Wall blew past the helpless Larry Drew and dunked it on the break) it was very clear: There would be no rebuild. The Cats were already built and ready for takeoff.

Wall blitzed through the Tar Heels so fast he literally ran himself to dehydration. He spent 20 minutes in the locker room getting an IV, which allowed UNC to make a comeback. But Wall returned to play out the game and finish the job at the foul line. Kentucky won 68-66 behind Wall and Patrick Patterson. UNC got solid play from its frontline of Deion Thompson, Ed Davis, and Tyler Zeller, but their guards were utterly outclassed, a theme for the year.

March 27th, 2011 - Kentucky Shoots Down the Heels

UNC and Kentucky had already met in Chapel Hill earlier that season, with the Tar Heels taking the win 75-73. With Kansas falling to VCU earlier that day, 2-seed UNC was now the highest remaining seed in the field and, with their second half surge to end the year, looked to be the favorite to win the National title.

Kentucky had other plans. Fresh off knocking off top-seed Ohio State, the Wildcats torched UNC from behind the arc, hitting 12-22 from three. Brandon Knight had 22 points to lead all scorers. UNC got 21 points from Zeller and 18 from Harrison Barnes but, with John Henson in foul trouble, didn’t dominate the interior enough to make up for Kentucky’s shooting advantage. DeAndre Liggins hit the game-sealing three with 37 seconds left and Kentucky stamped their ticket to the Final Four with a 76-69 win.

December 3rd, 2011- The Davis Block

The showdown between UNC and UK in Lexington had all the hype of a heavyweight prize fight. The two most talented teams in America were set to square off in what many suspected would be the preview of a Final Four matchup in New Orleans. UNC’s upset against UNLV a week earlier prevented it from being a #1 vs #2 matchup but that’s what it really was.

The game, a high tempo back-and-forth affair, came down to the closing seconds. UNC cut Kentucky’s lead to one and held on defensively to get one last shot to win it. Tyler Zeller got the ball in the post but lost the handle, which wound up in the hands of Henson. Henson tried to nail the game-winning jumper from the wing. There was only one player in America capable of blocking that shot: Unfortunately, he played for Kentucky and his name was Anthony Davis.

Davis’ block ended up in Kentucky hands and the Cats ran out the clock as UNC inexplicably failed to foul. It launched Davis’ dominant season and UK won it all in the Big Easy. UNC was denied a championship rematch by a rash of injuries. Don’t wanna talk about it.

December 17th, 2016 - The Malik Monk Game

Carolina and Kentucky would play two classics in the 2016-17 Season and I can tell you without a shred of doubt that the first matchup was the most preposterously entertaining game of college basketball I have ever seen. In an offensive shootout for the ages, the star of the show was Malik Monk, who scored 47 points on 18-28 shooting, the last of which was a cold-blooded contested three that proved to be the game-winner (one of those Ron Burgundy “I’m not even mad...that’s amazing” moments). Kentucky won it 103-100.

Lost in Monk’s heroics was a brilliant shooting display from Justin Jackson, who had 34, De’Aron Fox, who had 24 points and 10 assists, and Joel Berry, who had 23 and 7. It was an all-around brilliant game of basketball and had college basketball fans begging for a rematch...

March 26th, 2017 - LUUUUUUUKE!!!!

...which we got. The last iteration of UNC-Kentucky was probably the most consequential, taking into consideration both the stakes AND the drama. While the superstars had taken center stage in the first matchup, the second half of this Elite Eight thriller featured two supporting players. In the closing minutes, backup Isaac Humphries nailed two big time shots to give the Cats a five point lead with about five minutes remaining. Then it was UNC’s turn: a 12-0 run put the Tar Heels up 71-64 with under a minute left.

A trio of clutch threes by De’Aron Fox and Malik Monk (both of whom the Tar Heels did a much better job guarding this time around) tied the game with 7.2 seconds left. Carolina didn’t call timeout and Theo Pinson raced down court with another unlikely hero, one Luke David Maye, trailing. I’ll let Celine Dion take it from here: