Date story published: Sunday, December 2, 2007
It's a season of transition to a new coach and system. Injuries kept two of the better players (Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper) in stylish street clothes. Kentucky's starting lineup included a freshman (albeit one with great promise) and three sophomores who averaged a cumulative 2.7 points last season.
So, UK Coach Billy Gillispie certainly did not want yesterday's game against No. 1 North Carolina to become a battle of the network stars.
"Coach told us, the uglier it was, the better chance we have," sophomore guard Michael Porter said. "That's true. We can't let them have all their skills and shots."
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Kentucky largely succeeded in making North Carolina slug it out in a test of wills. The many fouls against UK (eight inside the first eight minutes; Perry Stevenson fouled out barely four minutes into the second half) proved how well UK muddied up the game's flow.
Without many style points, North Carolina still won 86-77. Even at three-quarter speed, the Tar Heels were too much for Kentucky, especially with the boost provided by quicksilver point guard Ty Lawson's return from an ankle sprain.
Kentucky (4-2) took comfort in its effort.
"Coach was definitely happy with our performance," said Patrick Patterson, whose 19 points complemented a team-high 21 from Joe Crawford. "He'd definitely like to win. But he said he was proud of us. We played hard. We left it on the court."
Yes, Patterson said, it was the first time this season Gillispie has voiced such approval.
North Carolina (7-0) really only spread its wings once for an extended period. But that 10-minute span early in the second half buried Kentucky under a 20-point deficit. A 37-34 rough-edged competition became a 70-50 cushion for the Tar Heels to ride to the finish line.
"Kentucky took us out of a lot of things we wanted to do," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "But from about the 18-minute mark to about the 10-minute mark (actually 8:30), we were really good. We were moving the ball. We were passing. We were doing a decent job defending. We weren't giving up second shots. ...
"They cut it to three. All of a sudden, we got pretty good after that."
A misjudgment by UK guard Ramel Bradley helped get North Carolina started. Bradley chose to leave Wayne Ellington, an elegant and deadly three-point shooter (50-percent accuracy going into the game), to double-down on post man Deon Thompson (who averaged 8.7 points and went scoreless in the first half). Thompson passed to Ellington who swished a three-pointer to put the Tar Heels ahead 42-34.
"We always dive to the post," said Bradley, who chipped in 19 points, "but in that particular situation, I should have been a little smarter not to leave a jump shooter wide open."
It was a case of doing the right thing at the wrong time.
"I've been trying to get them to dive on the post," Gillispie said. "He just picked the wrong time. They made us pay for it, and that's what a good team will do."
A few minutes later, backup guard Bobby Frasor (who missed all five of his three-point shots at Ohio State earlier in the week) hit back-to-back attempts from beyond the arc. Those bombs put North Carolina ahead 57-39 with 14:57 left.
The margin reached its zenith at 70-50 on an Ellington jumper with 8:30 left.
With victory out of reach, Kentucky could have meekly surrendered. Having led for only 65 seconds all afternoon (by two points early in the game), the Cats had little reason to believe a comeback could be mounted. But try, UK did, closing within 14 at the 6:11 mark and steadily creeping to within nine at the buzzer.
Gillispie saluted the Cats for trying "harder than we have tried so far (this season)," he said. "Hopefully that's a good sign."
Kentucky players suggested that the game revealed marked improvement in competitiveness. Now the Cats must correct problems that can be corrected. For instance, reducing turnovers.
When asked whether Kentucky gained a moral victory, Bradley warmed to the idea. "Yeah, that'd be a great way to look at it," he said.
A reporter noted that Kentucky basketball doesn't traditionally embrace moral victories. UK wants tangible victories, and by the widest margins possible.
"I agree," Bradley said. "If we continue to progress, we'll be a very good team, and we'll get those victories."