If the end of the Kentucky-North Carolina series is nigh, the two basketball blue bloods gave fans one more — one last? — exciting regular-season game to savor on Saturday.
Taut. Competitive. A test of wills and nerve. In other words, what's been expected and usually delivered when two of college basketball's most storied programs meet.
After Kentucky won 73-72 in the latest chapter of a rivalry threatened by conference expansion, even North Carolina Coach Roy Williams applauded what unfolded.
"I love games like this," he said before explaining a few moments later, "I don't have to talk too much about, 'Let's get fired up.' "
Intensity translated into a game that saw no double-digit leads and no margin greater than six points in the second half.
Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's two free throws put Kentucky ahead 73-69 with 1:33 left. As the eighth-largest crowd in Rupp Arena roared its approval, a UNC turnover amid chants of Go Big Blue suggested the Cats might ease to victory.
Not this day. A Kentucky turnover unleashed Kendall Marshall in transition, where he found Reggie Bullock for a three-pointer from the right corner. That made it a one-point game with 47.7 seconds left.
"That's what happens when two good teams do not quit," UK Coach John Calipari said of the screws refusing to loosen.
It stayed a one-point game when Marquis Teague missed the front end of a one-and-one with 21.5 seconds left.
UNC sought the game-winner from center Tyler Zeller, but he fumbled the entry pass, then swatted the ball to an open teammate, John Henson, standing alone about 10 feet to the right of the basket.
"I've always said, if the score is tied or it's a one-point game, then you are better off taking it to the basket," Williams said. "But not many people can block a jump shot from John Henson. It takes about 10 or 12 feet."
Henson, who is 6-foot-11, recognized that less than 10 seconds remained.
"I knew we had to get a shot up on the board, so we'd have a chance for a rebound," Henson said.
But freshman Anthony Davis, who is on pace to break UK's record for blocks, leaped out and rejected the shot.
"It was a little taste of my own medicine," said Henson, UNC's career leader in blocked shots per game (2.51).
For Kentucky, Davis' block represented business as usual. "He's a master right now at timing shots to block them," teammate Terrence Jones said.
The block so shocked UNC, its players ignored Williams' cries to foul as Davis secured the ball and passed it to Teague, who dribbled away the final seconds.
"I think we were just so stunned that we couldn't foul anyone," Henson said.
Zeller agreed. "We had a lapse. It's something that's unacceptable, and we have to get better at it."
For the first time this season, Kentucky did not lead at halftime. Despite leading scorer Harrison Barnes' foul trouble, North Carolina led 43-38 at the break.
Barnes picked up his second foul with 13:16 left in the half. Although UNC led the final 13 minutes of the half, and by as much as nine points, Barnes returned to the game. He picked up his third foul with 6:18 left while trying to impede Kidd-Gilchrist in transition.
Even without Barnes always on the floor, the Tar Heels got the best of it in the first half. Zeller, a Cat killer last season (48 points, 20 rebounds and nine blocks in the two games) joined Barnes with a team-high 14 points each. His 10 points led UNC in the first half, and his six shots surpassed the five he took all game against Wisconsin earlier in the week. And he equaled the six he took in the loss to UNLV last weekend.
As Calipari suggested on Friday, Kentucky would not depend as much on its freshmen in such a high-caliber game. Veterans Jones and Darius Miller took the initiative for the Cats, the two combining for 21 of UK's 38 first-half points.
Kentucky could not fault a slow start for the halftime deficit. The Cats led 9-3 barely three minutes into the game.
A jumper by Barnes with 6:52 left gave North Carolina the game's largest lead: 34-25. A timeout helped slow UNC's momentum as Kentucky got within five by halftime.
What's becoming a signature play helped Kentucky get off well in the second half. Kidd-Gilchrist threw a lob in transition that Davis dunked. The three-point play tied it at 45 with 18 minutes left after Davis hit his foul shot. That marked the first time since the 13-minute mark of the first half that the Cats did not trail.
Marshall steadied UNC with his second three-pointer (he came into the game with only three).
Kentucky inched ahead 52-51 on a Teague drive in transition. A Lamb three-pointer from the right corner gave Kentucky a 69-64 lead with 3:47 left. That marked only his second — and UK's fourth — trey of the game.
It wasn't a day for sharpshooting. Conscientious play produced UK's 56 percent accuracy in the second half. "They were a little more patient with it than we were," Williams said.
Winning required sharp thinking and persistence.
"This feels good just because of the way we won," Jones said. "Just having to know we had to go with the game plan to come back. We had to do it as a team."