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December 5, 2010

UNC shows heart against 'Cats

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - This was everything the Carolina-blue clad faithful had been waiting for.

This was heart.

This was toughness.

This was, most of all, a healthy slice of pride.

North Carolina overcame a miserable shooting day Saturday - going 1-for-11 from behind the three-point line - to knock off No. 10 Kentucky 75-73 on a snowy afternoon in Chapel Hill.

"I loved our toughness," Carolina head coach Roy Williams said after the win.

The Tar Heels came into Saturday's nationally televised game after losing on the road at Illinois earlier in the week. That loss moved Carolina to 4-3 and the ghosts from last winter began to rumble.

You could feel the frustration mounting, the little voice whispering, "Not again."

Yes, young teams need to grow, but those who fill the Smith Center every season don't want to wait for growth. They want results.

If only for this one early-December Saturday, the Tar Heels decided enough was enough. Playing .500 basketball wasn't for them.

"We absolutely had to win (this game)," Larry Drew II said after beating Kentucky. "Losing was out of the question."

Losing would have brought talks of the NIT again.

Losing would have set Carolina on a path not to March madness, but rather March misery.

Losing would have perpetuated the critics.

But behind nearly 21,000 raucous fans, Carolina answered the challenge with a renewed swagger.

"Coach emphasized 'losing yourself in the game' today," Harrison Barnes said. "It was good to see our fans behind us and see this team come together."

It's not that the Tar Heels weren't committed before Kentucky came to town, or that they didn't want to win at Illinois, or that they didn't care when they lost to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico two weeks ago.

Of course they wanted to win.

But did they believe they were going to win?

Did they expect to win?

Those are different questions entirely, questions whose answers show through body language and aura.

On Saturday, there was a sense of life and a sense of urgency that this team hasn't showed before.

It was Barnes hitting a three-pointer then following it up with a put-back dunk off an offensive rebound and flexing his muscles as the Smith Center crowd went wild.

Barnes is a thinker, and he rarely shows emotion.

But the dunk, the flex, the roar, the wave for everybody to get out of their seats, was the type of response everyone has been waiting for from Barnes.

"Come on, kid, show me there's something in there. We know there's something beneath that '40' on your chest."

It was Tyler Zeller showing an increased aggressiveness on defense, blocking a career-high five shots and being a presence in the paint.

Zeller is so skilled that his game consists of more than a one-step-and-bull-your-way-to-the-basket approach, but there are times when that ferocity is what's needed from Zeller.

"Tonight was my night to step up, and I did it," Zeller said.

It was John Henson igniting the offense in the first half and then taking Kentucky's sensational freshman Terrence Jones one-on-one on defense and holding the rookie to nine points on 3-for-17 shooting and only one offensive rebound.

"The scouting report (on the left-handed Jones) was camp on his left hand, don't foul him going right, contain and box him, and (understand) he's a one-on-one player," Henson said. "I sensed him getting a little upset, and you like to see that and you feed off that."

It was Dexter Strickland, Larry Drew, et al., tightening down on perimeter defense in the second half and doing their part to keep Kentucky's guards, namely freshmen Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight, in check.

Lamb and Knight still combined to score 39 points, but the duo struggled to get the rest of the offense involved and registered only seven assists.

But mostly it was Zeller.

His 27 points and 11 rebounds don't speak to the impact he had on this game and don't speak to his leadership and growth.

Take these numbers instead: 11-for-12 from the line including 10 consecutive in the game's final five minutes.

Toughness isn't always poster-worthy dunks and blocked shots that end up 20 rows deep.

Toughness is poise.

Toughness is doing the little things to win games when pandemonium threatens to clutter the brain.

With the game in the waning moments, Carolina fed their big man the ball and let him work.

With four fouls on Zeller, Williams repeatedly subbed for him on the defensive end in an attempt to prevent Zeller from fouling out but then would promptly put him back in when Carolina got the ball.

"Don't foul '44,'" Kentucky coach John Calipari barked at his players, "don't even touch him!"

The young Wildcats didn't listen.

Carolina kept dumping the ball into Zeller and Kentucky hacked away at him, leaving his arms scratched and clawed.

"I was either going to go to the line or they were going to give me a lay up," Zeller said with confidence. "It was their choice.

"They put me at the line, and I just had to knock them down."

Williams expected this type of performance from Zeller.

"I spoke with (Zeller) over the summer and he understands we need him to be the big-time player I think he can be," Williams said. "He was that today."

When one last half-court Kentucky heave clanked off the backboard, the buzzer sounded and Carolina's two-point victory was secure.

The Tar Heels raised their arms in triumph, they barked at the fans, they hollered at each other, and they had won.

They appeared relieved, but they know this moment means nothing if it doesn't propel them forward.

As Zeller said, one win against Kentucky doesn't make the season.

They must build on it.

But it was a start, and it was a moment of transparency and clarity for a growing team.

"We don't do moral victories around here," Henson said.

Yes, that's the first sound of a team recapturing the pride that has seeped from successful Carolina teams for years.

That's the first sound of an unproven team beginning to believe.






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