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December 3, 2011

Lexington Heartbreak

LEXINGTON, Ky.--- North Carolina had the ball and a chance to win in the closing seconds Saturday afternoon against top-ranked Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but a late blocked shot by Kentucky's Anthony Davis, and UNC's inaction after the deflection, was the climactic moment in UK's dramatic 73-72 win over the Heels.

"It's funny, because I do the same thing to other guys and he (Davis) did it to me for the game," said UNC's John Henson, whose shot was blocked by Davis in the closing moments. "It was a great play by a great player. It was a great play by him."

Davis's blocked shot brought a thrilling finish to a game of Top Five programs---Kentucky No. 1 and North Carolina No. 5----that lived up to all the pregame billing.

In what could very well be a Final Four preview, the Tar Heels and Wildcats lined up for 40 minutes and delivered blow after blow to one another, not unlike a pair of heavyweight prize fighters.

Kentucky built an early 9-3 advantage in the game's early moments, only to watch North Carolina rally to lead by as much as eight points at different junctures of the opening half, and a 43-38 halftime lead.

Although the Tar Heels were out-rebounded by Kentucky and made fewer field goals and free throws---not to mention having more turnovers and personal fouls than the Wildcats---UNC dominated in two key categories.

The Tar Heels were a stellar 11-of-18 shooting from three-point range---led by four three balls by Harrison Barnes and three from P.J. Hairston, who wasn't even supposed to play until Saturday morning---and UNC held Kentucky to just four-of-17 shooting from behind the arc.

Carolina's dominance in perimeter shooting and defense helped them stay in control for much of the early part of the second half before a prolonged cold spell midway through the period, which allowed Kentucky to take the lead and hold a strategic edge down the stretch.

"We hung in, but we took some tough fade-aways," said Barnes, who tied for game-high scoring honors for UNC with 14 points. "I took some shots that were a little difficult for myself, and I know some of my teammates did too. We just have to work on getting better shots."

Kentucky had the ball with a four-point lead following a critical turnover by the Tar Heels, but UNC forced a turnover and quickly got the ball ahead to Reggie Bullock, who drained a three-pointer to make the score 73-72 with 47.7 seconds left.

Kentucky missed a free throw on its next offensive possession, setting up the game's final play. Inexplicably, UNC's players seemed to watch the final seconds run off the clock after Henson's shot was blocked, failing to make any effort to foul.

Any way you slice it, this one was a tough pill to swallow for the Tar Heels. Although the win extended No. 1 Kentucky's winning streak at Rupp Arena to 38 straight games under coach John Calipari, the Carolina coaches and players knew this one was theirs for the taking.

"I think that, for us, it was a very disappointing last couple of seconds to say the least," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "It was a big-time college basketball game."

Although there were some questions about UNC's perceived toughness coming off last weekend's loss to UNLV in Las Vegas, Coach Williams---and Coach Calipari for that matter---believe the Tar Heels answered the challenge.

"I cannot fault my team's effort tonight," said Williams. "We didn't play nearly as well last Saturday night, but UNLV had a lot to do with it."

"If that team (UNC) is weak, then what are we?" said Calipari in his postgame show. "That could be the best team in the country. If he (Davis) didn't block the shot, we lose the game. Both teams gutted it out, just gutted it out."

"This is supposed to be in March, now now," Calipari continued. "I'm exhausted."

Naturally the Tar Heels wanted to exact some revenge on the Wildcats for last year's NCAA East Regional Elite Eight loss that cost Carolina a return trip to the Final Four.

And while a rematch could be forthcoming in a few months in New Orleans, the Tar Heels will now look to regroup with a game at home against Evansville in the Smith Center before embarking on an 11-day break for end-of-semester exams.

"(We need to work on) boxing out and rebounding," said Barnes, "That's what it came down to (Saturday afternoon). You could see that both teams are good at moving the ball and getting good shots but at the end of the day, second opportunities made the difference."

"Games like this get you ready for March and that's all that matters right now," added Henson.







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