John Clay: If we're lucky, we'll get a Kentucky-North Carolina rematch

UK stops North Carolina in battle that matches the hype

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 4, 2011 

Let's make it best-of-seven.

Let's play it right here, right now, this season, these players, these coaches, these Kentucky Wildcats, these North Carolina Tar Heels, these fans, a best-of-seven to decide the basketball champion of the world.

That's what it felt like Saturday at high noon in Rupp Arena, where it might have been student-athletes on the floor with NCAA logos on their jerseys, but the feel was all big-time professional, with future millionaires playing for pride and honor and the joy of coming out on top.

Turned out, we were the ones who came out on top because we're the ones who got lucky with Saturday's dramatic 73-72 Kentucky win over North Carolina before an overflow crowd of 24,398.

Not much in our society matches the hype anymore. We're resigned to the big letdown. Over-sold and over-blown. Not this time. The Rumble in Rupp was 120 glorious minutes of everything we hoped it would be.

"We were excited to play them, they were excited to play us," said UK senior Darius Miller. "It turned out to be the game that everybody wanted."

There's nothing like March Madness, no doubt, with its Cinderella stories, but when it comes to twin towers of power, maybe David Stern and his NBA brethren have it right. With two teams as good and as talented as this, don't you want to see them bang heads again and again and again?

"There were some very talented and gifted youngsters out there," said the losing coach, Roy Williams.

Thing was, the glamour guys played like gritty guys. This was no posing, just performing. These were all 10 players on the floor playing as hard as they could before a crowd screaming as loud as they could.

They probably could have heard the screams all the way to Chapel Hill when UK's Anthony Davis elevated and blocked John Henson's baseline jumper on the game's final play.

North Carolina won the first half by five points. Kentucky won the second half by six. North Carolina made six of nine three-pointers in the first 20 minutes. Kentucky shot 56 percent from the floor in the second 20 minutes. The final outcome was decided by a single point. Both teams gave as good as they got.

OK, OK, as proven by Ohio State's demolition of Duke last week, the Buckeyes are really good. And you can give Duke a mulligan, what with the Blue Devils globe-trotting from Madison Square Garden to Maui and then Columbus.

Meanwhile, if Syracuse can somehow avoid the distractions and keep their coach, the Orange have to be counted among the nation's four or five best outfits.

And, yeah, we know, North Carolina had already coughed up their No. 1 ranking by losing last week to UNLV, turning the top spot over to John Calipari's Cats.

"We didn't play nearly this well last Saturday night," said UNC Coach Roy Williams.

Still, it would be difficult to come away from Saturday not thinking what we thought before the season, that these are the two best teams in the country.

With three freshmen playing such pivotal roles, Kentucky figures to get nothing but better.

Even though North Carolina is older, there's every reason to believe the Tar Heels will climb the improvement ladder. Every team is different just as every year is different, after all, and even veteran teams have to find their own way.

Now, we just need these two to find each other again later this season.

If we can't do it six more times, hopefully we can do it one more.

"We know they're going to be there," said Miller when asked about March. "They're a very talented team, a very experienced team. They're probably going to be there at the end."

"Let's hope if we have to play them again," Calipari said, "it's the very last game of the season, for both teams, in one place, and that's when we play them again."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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