Date story published: Sunday, December 4, 2005
A nationally televised game gave college basketball's winningest programs the stage to make statements yesterday.
By beating Kentucky 83-79 in Rupp Arena, freshman-dominated North Carolina showed its return to the Top 25 and national prominence might be quicker than expected.
Not that in the flush of victory Coach Roy Williams wanted to analyze his team's progress.
"I'm so daggone happy," he said. "I don't give a damn about (a progress report). I'm not concerned about an evaluation. I'm trying to get my butt out of town."
By contrast, No. 10 Kentucky, which did not lead in the final 30 minutes, appeared headed back to the proverbial drawing board and out of the national top 10 for the first time in 40 polls.
"We regressed today ... ," Coach Tubby Smith said. "We took a real step backward."
Although poised throughout, youth did not lead UNC, which improved to 4-1. Junior Reyshawn Terry led the Tar Heels with a career-high 25 points. Senior David Noel added 15.
Kentucky (5-2) got a career-high 20 points from point guard Rajon Rondo, but eight of those points came in the final 23 seconds as North Carolina traded driving layups for time off the clock.
Familiar problems hurt UK. The Cats struggled on the boards, failed to stop the opponent from penetrating the defense and committed what Smith termed "careless turnovers." When winning time came, the team that started three freshmen (North Carolina) made the clutch plays.
"They outplayed us, and I thought they outworked us in a lot of areas," Smith said.
As a result, Kentucky wasted a good shooting performance. For only the second time in 98 chances under Smith, UK lost a game in which it made at least 50 percent of its shots.
North Carolina made two of its first nine shots, then took control with hot three-point shooting. Terry, who missed his first three-point attempt to lower his accuracy this season to 0-for-9, then hit two shots from beyond the arc in the first half. The second gave North Carolina its first double-digit lead (42-31 at the 1:02 mark).
Noel came into the game having made two of five three-point attempts. He hit three of five against Kentucky.
"When you leave guys wide open, they're going to make those shots," Smith said.
North Carolina also controlled the boards, outrebounding UK 20-13 in the first half and 37-30 for the game. Freshman center Tyler Hansbrough's putback with three seconds left set the halftime score and punctuated a trip downcourt that saw the Tar Heels get four shots.
North Carolina's 44-32 lead represented Kentucky's first double-digit halftime deficit at home since 1994 (down 44-34 to Florida on March 2, 1994). UK rallied to win that game 80-77, and the Cats came back against North Carolina after hearing an intermission challenge from Smith.
"He questioned our manhood, and he was right to," said Ravi Moss, who had a career-high 17 points. "They came in and smacked us, and we didn't smack them back. We've got to protect our house, and we didn't. We're the University of Kentucky. When we get smacked, we are supposed to smack back."
Kentucky outscored North Carolina 12-2 to start the second half and closed the gap to 46-44.
Then Terry beat Bobby Perry on a cut to the basket and hit a layup.
"Any Division I basketball player is going to hit open shots," said Perry, who competed against Terry on the high school level. "I knew he could play. He got in a zone and was feeling it."
Smith called guarding Terry, a springy 6-foot-8 forward, "a tough match. That's where missing a player like Joe Crawford hurts. He's probably a better matchup with Terry."
The Tar Heels seemingly sealed the victory when Noel drove past one defender and dunked over a late-arriving Rondo. That put North Carolina ahead 66-54 with 9:40 left.
If that didn't signal the end, Terry's tip-in less than two minutes later seemed to do the job. It gave the Tar Heels their largest lead, 69-56, with 8:17 left.
Kentucky mounted one more rally, closing it to 71-66. But two straight turnovers helped snuff the comeback. Moss got called for cuffing the defender while freeing himself on a drive. After freshman Marcus Ginyard hit a leaner in the lane over Sparks, Rondo zigged (passing after penetrating) while Moss zagged (cut away from where Rondo passed).
"Against a good team, you have to play with a little more poise and a little more control," Smith said. "We seemed to be playing too fast and in a hurry. North Carolina forced some of that. You get a little anxious. You have to fight the pressure and not panic."