Well, today was a great day in college basketball. Two titans of the hardwood met in historic Rupp Arena with the #1 ranking in America on the line, and the Kentucky Wildcats emerged victorious over the North Carolina Tar Heels by a single point thanks to a last-second block by Anthony Davis on a John Henson jump shot.
By any measure, this was a terrific game by both teams. It had intensity, it had defense, it had great 3-point shooting, good passing, good rebounding and excellent ballhandling. In every sense, it was a game worthy of two of the most storied basketball programs in America. North Carolina should not be proud that they lost, but they should be proud of the way the competed, and somehow you knew that this game was going to come down to the last second. It did not disappoint in any aspect.
For the fist 5/8ths of the game, North Carolina was simply the best team. They took what Kentucky gave them, they made big shots and got the lead all the way out to nine points a couple of times. It was not until 15:18 to go in the second half that Kentucky managed to get the lead back after playing from behind for most of the game, and finally took the lead for good at 61-60 with 7:32 remaining. It was nip and tuck to the very end.
Four Factors to Winning
Looking at the Four Factors to Winning, the Wildcats were held to only 47.6% effective FG%, the second-lowest against an opponent this year, while shooting almost 51% themselves. The Tar Heels offset that by turning the ball over fairly liberally at 20%, while for the second straight game, UK had an excellent ballhandling game. The Wildcats beat the Heels on the offensive glass and also in FT%, offsetting the outstanding 3-point percentage by the Tar Heels.
What really won this game for Kentucky, though, was sharp offensive execution and defensive intensity in the second half. The Tar Heels were knocking down a lot of huge threes, but in between those, they were struggling in their half-court offense to get good looks. Usually, when a team shoots 63% from three and makes 11 of them, their eFG% is through the roof and in the high 50's. If that had happened, Kentucky would have lost convincingly.
But the Heels only managed 33% on 2-point baskets, mostly due to very competitive and aggressive UK defense, and that was what kept UK in the game. Kentucky, conversely, went a loathsome 4-17 (23.5%) from three, but made 52% of their shots from 2-point range in a reversal of the normal tendency of both teams. Kentucky normally gets over 30 of their scoring from 3, while North Carolina normally gets about 20. Today, UNC got 46% of their points from the arc, and UK only 16%.
Indicative of UK's intensity on defense, they came away with 7 steals, and against a team the quality of the Tar Heels, that is a very high number. Kentucky only allowed UNC to take the ball away from them twice.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played like a full-grown man, scoring 17 points on 6 of 9 shots and added 5/7 free throws. But he pulled down 11 huge boards for a double-double, including 4 offensive rebounds, a block, a steal and an assist. Game ball.
- Doron Lamb had a great game that was also worthy of consideration. He scored 14 points on 50% shooting, but made a couple of cold-blooded threes to preserve the Kentucky lead late in the game. Lamb had a team high 4 turnovers, but he did more than enough to make up for that.
- Darius Miller had a really solid game, and made several huge plays down the stretch. Great to see the senior make such a valuable and timely contribution.
- Terrence Jones played well, especially on defense. He had 2 steals and 3 blocks to go along with 14 points on 4-14 shooting with 7 rebounds. I thought Terrence took too many perimeter shots this game.
- What can you say about Anthony Davis? He saved the game. His numbers aren't eye-poping, but he affected every shot and blocked 2, including the game winner, to go along with nine rebounds.
- Eloy Vargas continues to impress. He refused to allow Tyler Zeller to get post-up position and had 2 rebounds in only 6 minutes. At that rate, he would have had about 11 in typical starter minutes.
- Kyle Wiltjer also did a very good job. He was outstanding with quick double-teams on Zeller, and forced at least one turnover with his sharp execution of the post double-team. He also made a critical basket when the Wildcats really needed one, a left-handed scoop shot.
- Finally, there is Marquis Teague. 4 assists against only 1 turnover. He shot the ball poorly, and some of his shot selection was suspect, but overall, I loved what he did.
- Defensive intensity for the team was just excellent.
- The poise that this Kentucky team played with considering the magnitude of the game and the youth of the team was impressive.
- Kentucky's transition defense was excellent. North Carolina did not get many fast breaks, and several of them failed to score.
Not so great
- The decision to put Anthony Davis on Zeller. Zeller buried Davis under the basket numerous times, and John Henson repeatedly shot over Jones. I would have reversed those roles
- Shot selection in the first half. I thought UK took way too many bad shots in the first half, mostly from three.
- Kentucky's 3-point shooting was simply awful, mostly because they were impatient, or because the wrong people were shooting them.
- 3-point defense is obviously a concern.
Overall, I think we can all be really proud of our team in this game. They gave us absolutely everything we could have wanted, including a victory, and even though it wasn't perfect, they really never gave up on anything and played extremely hard, and for the most part, well.
Next up: The Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington. The Hoosiers are competitive, and that game will be a tough one. But we'll worry about that after a few days of soaking up the accolades and celebrating our big early-season win and #1 ranking, now clearly deserved.