Kentucky Wildcats (4) 76 @ North Carolina Tar Heels (2) 69:  Postmortem

Jubilation.

My normal habit is to write the postmortem right after the game, but like almost everyone else in the Big Blue Nation, I was celebrating the victory of the Kentucky Wildcats over the North Carolina Tar Heels last night, and decided to sleep on it until this morning.

Congratulations to the Tar Heels on a great run in the Tournament.  North Carolina got off to a very shaky start this year, but at the end of the year they pulled their extremely talented team together and elevated themselves all the way to a #2 seed in the NCAA, which is especially impressive considering that this is nearly the same team that had to suffer through a rare NIT season last year.  North Carolina played hard and, for the most part, well.  What they did not do very well was shoot the ball from the outside, however, and against Kentucky, that lack of shooting can be tough to overcome.  Still, the Tar Heels deserve (and at least for my part, have) a ton of respect for the quality and class of their program.

Big Blue Nation, we did it.  After 12 long years and four frustratingly futile efforts (including just 12 months ago), we finally got back to the promised land -- the Final Four.  In only his second year on the job, and with a far more improbable team than last year's group, John Calipari has guided Kentucky to a place it has not been in over a decade.  That seems very strange to say about a team with seven national championships, but there it is.  Nonetheless, Kentucky has returned to the last weekend of the season in triumph over a major rival.

I am confident that very few of the Kentucky faithful ever believed that the 2011 version of the Wildcats could get to this point, and for my part, I know that's true.  This run to the Final Four reminds me very much of 1998, when Kentucky had to face the Duke Blue Devils in the regional final, and in doing so exorcised the demons of the 1992 Unforgettables defeat at the hands of Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley & Co.  That 1998 team was not expected to go past the Sweet Sixteen, yet they managed to go all the way.

I'm not ready to crown 2011 Kentucky the national champions, but for the first time since 1998, they have a chance to prove their worth against the four survivors of this year's tournament on the final weekend of the college basketball season.  Kentucky has seemingly been on a tour to avenge all its losses this year:  First the Vanderbilt Commodores in Rupp, then the Florida Gators, the Mississippi Rebels in the SEC tournament, the Alabama Crimson Tide, now the Tar Heels.  The Connecticut Huskies also beat Kentucky, and were the only team to do so in convincing fashion back during the Maui Invitational.  The 2011 revenge tour continues in the Final Four, which represents the sixth and final chance for the Wildcats to successfully reprise earlier defeats.

Superlatives:

  • From hitting cold-blooded threes to making plays to making steals, Brandon Knight played a great game last night and deserves the game ball. The three turnovers are a little troubling, but taken together, Knight deserves this award.
  • Josh Harrellson once again proved his great worth by playing Tyler Zeller very well.  Zeller got the best of the matchup, but not by very much.  Harrellson had a total of 8 rebounds, 3 offensive, to go with his 11 points and 4 assists.
  • Darius Miller, despite scoring relatively few points, had a really good game.  The shots he made were incredibly timely, his defense on Harrison Barnes was mostly very good, and he did what was needed for the team to win, which is a little bit of everything.
  • DeAndre Liggins was very much in consideration for the game ball, particularly with the dagger three at the end of the game.  He wound up with 12 points and 4 assists, and as usual, his defense was extremely disruptive and he once again managed to shake the poise of the Tar Heels.
  • Doron Lamb may not have scored all that much, but that kid played some great defense this game.  Where he did not do well was on a couple of run-outs, where he gave Carolina two and-1's by soft fouls that did not make a play on the ball.  That part of his game needs work.
  • Terrence Jones, except for the 4 turnovers, had a very good game overall.  He shot the ball well, made a three, had seven rebounds and two blocks.  He looked a bit more confident out there than he has looked lately.
  • Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood only gave a minute apiece, but they were minutes that Kentucky needed, and both of them played fine.

Observations:

  • I told you earlier that it was likely Calipari would put Liggins on Marshall, and that happened.  Now I will tell you that you might think Liggins will be put on Kemba Walker, but don't bet on it.  My money is on Jeremy Lamb.  If Liggins holds Lamb down, I don't think Connecticut can beat us.  Kemba Walker is, in all honestly, too good to guard effectively.  That's nothing against Liggins.  Nobody in the NCAA has been able to stop him.
  • Kentucky shot almost 60% eFG.  Folks, that is lights-out. 
  • 58% from three will win a lot of games, but 20% turnovers will often get you beat.  Fortunately, North Carolina did not take great care of the ball, either.
  • Tyler Zeller is really good.  So is Harrison Barnes.
  • John Henson's foul troubles should have made rebounding the ball easier, yet we still lost the OR battle significantly.
  • The game was played too much at a North Carolina pace -- 70 possessions.  Another reason why the game was close.
  • Kentucky allowed way too many run outs, although not as many as UNC is used to getting.  Neither team got to the line much, but UNC was there far too often for and-1's.

That's it.  Off we go to a place we haven't been to in a long time.  Since 1998, four times prior to this one has Kentucky knocked on the door to the final weekend and been turned away.  The fifth time turned out to be the charm.

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