CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As the coaches shook hands after North Carolina beat Kentucky 75-73 Saturday, Roy Williams told John Calipari, "Not real well played, but a good game."
To which, the UK coach replied, "Well said, Coach, well said."
Kentucky and North Carolina might be pale imitations of their championship best, but the blueblood programs proved they still know how to throw a basketball party.
What Williams called a "hard-fought, hand-to-hand combat type of game" unfolded at the powder-blue Dean Dome. In the end, foul trouble — and perhaps the homecourt disadvantage — proved too much for Kentucky to overcome.
Clutch free-throwing gave UNC a 75-73 victory over Kentucky and the look-at-us victory the stumbling Tar Heels craved.
Forward John Henson, who spearheaded a defense that hounded freshman flash Terrence Jones into a 3-for-17 shooting afternoon, said the Tar Heels did some soul searching after a loss at Illinois on Tuesday dropped them to a pedestrian 4-3.
"We told ourselves, we're not going to have another year like last year," he said in reference to the 20-17 record of last season. "We needed to win big time."
North Carolina made nine of 10 free throws in the final 1:21 to hold off UK.
The only miss came with 5.6 seconds left. When Dexter Strickland shot long, UK got the rebound. But Doron Lamb's half-court heave never had a chance, about the only shortcoming in his career-high 24-point performance.
Tyler Zeller, a 69.4-percent free-throw shooter this season, made six of six attempts in that span. That completed a 10-for-10 second half for Zeller, who led UNC with 27 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. All were career highs.
The only downside for Zeller came before the game. Mechanical problems grounded the plane his parents, Steve and Lorri, hoped to take to see the game.
"I told 'Z,' maybe this is the last game your mom and dad ever (have a chance) to see," Williams quipped.
Zeller, the middle brother of a trio of basketball big men, shrugged off his parents' absence. "I'll talk to them tonight," he said. "Their support will be the same."
But Zeller acknowledged the pleasure in avenging a 68-66 loss at Kentucky last season that the Tar Heels trailed by 15 at halftime.
"I think we approach every game as a must-win," he said. "But we approached this one more so because we got our butts kicked last year."
Kentucky (5-2) tried mightily despite losing Josh Harrellson, Eloy Vargas, Brandon Knight and Jones to fouls down the stretch.
Neither team led by more than eight points. Ahead 57-51 inside the final 12 minutes, UK began leaking players to fouls. North Carolina took the lead for good when Zeller made two free throws with 47 seconds left.
Kentucky led 42-40 at halftime, and had to feel good about it.
Foul trouble and a quiet first half by Jones suggested trouble. UNC getting good production from its front line and several fast-break opportunities seconded that notion.
Carolina looked inside early and got double dividends. Not only did Henson and Zeller score, but Harrellson picked up his second foul at the 17:06 mark. By the end of the half, Harrellson and his backup, Vargas, each had three fouls.
"That was our plan," Henson said. "We knew they didn't have a deep team. Coach said: attack, attack, attack."
To complicate matters, Jones did not score until the 5:12 mark. Kentucky got a reprieve with UNC's 1-for-7 three-point shooting and continuing problem with turnovers (nine in the half). The Tar Heels made only one of 11 three-point attempts, a sharp contrast to UK's 9-of-21 accuracy from beyond the arc.
Lamb came off the bench and scored 11 points. His fast-break layup gave UK its largest first-half lead at 25-17.
Back-to-back dunks by Zeller and Henson fueled a run that gave North Carolina its largest lead, 39-34, with 2:48 left.
With perfect timing, Jones came alive down the stretch. Running pick-and-roll plays again and again, Jones scored two of his three baskets, the second putting UK ahead 41-39.
Neither team took control in the second half.
The most memorable moment came when Henson shot two free-throw air balls with 16:55 left.
Five straight empty North Carolina possessions (one turnover and four one-miss trips downcourt) gave Kentucky a chance to inch ahead. When Miller sandwiched a three-pointer and floater in the lane around a Lamb fast-break layup, the Cats had their largest second-half lead at 57-51.
"We didn't make a lot of shots," Williams said. "But we made free throws and were tough enough on the defensive end in the second half."