CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Down the stretch, there they were fighting massive foul trouble, a thunderous crowd, a backs-to-the-wall opponent, a size disadvantage and a clutch situation this young Kentucky basketball team had not experienced before, not this season.
And yet, through all that, the deck stacked, the Cats still had a chance to pull out an ace.
"I'm stunned we were in the game at the end," said Coach John Calipari.
North Carolina won 75-73. Tyler Zeller scored a career-high 27 points, grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds, tied his career-high in blocked shots with five, and Roy Williams' struggling team got an early-season win it needed.
Never miss a local story.
Meanwhile, Kentucky got one of those L's that for a team that relies so heavily on rookies, will surely pay off down the road.
This L was for learning.
"It was two young teams," Calipari said. "There were some plays made, and I just shook my head. Roy said to me afterward, 'Not real well played, but a good game. And I said, 'Well said, Coach. Well said.'"
From an entertainment standpoint, this was a great game, back-and-forth, nip-and-tuck, played against the backdrop of two of the three winningest programs in college basketball.
These are not the two best teams each school has had. North Carolina entered 4-3, fresh off a loss at Illinois on Tuesday night, prompting Chapel Hill fear that maybe this UNC team was no different than last year's UNC team, the one that lost 17 games and went to the NIT.
Meanwhile, over on the other bench, the fear was once Kentucky met up against a team with a good post presence, the Cats would be hard-pressed to find an answer without fouling.
Josh Harrellson fouled out. Eloy Vargas fouled out. Terrence Jones also fouled out, as did Brandon Knight, though Jones' infractions came more from dealing with the 6-10 John Henson (13 points, 12 rebounds) on the defensive end, while his game struggled mightily on the offensive side.
Jones missed 14 of 17 shots from the floor, scoring only nine points. We've found a common denominator in Kentucky's two losses. Jones sat a huge chunk of the first half in the Cats' loss to UConn in the Maui Invitational final, and Kentucky found itself down 21 points (50-29) at the half. It couldn't overcome. Saturday, Jones turned in his worst performance of his young career. The Cats couldn't overcome.
"Today just wasn't one of his best days," said assistant coach Orlando Antigua. "I think we can use this as a teaching point for him and the rest of the guys on the team."
It was one of Doron Lamb's better days. UK assistant John Robic said earlier this week that Lamb is showing he needs more time on the floor. Saturday, the New Yorker took advantage, scoring a team-high 24 points. And wasn't happy.
"I'm still upset, because we lost," Lamb said. "That's the main thing. We've got to win."
Saturday's L should lead to future W's. This wasn't Portland, before a half-full house versus an inferior team.
This was big-time college basketball, on the road, before a crowd of 20,695 in the stands and five skilled players for the opposing team on the floor.
Four of six Cats who played nine minutes or more fouled out. And still, the Cats led 69-68 with 58 seconds left.
"We had a lot of guys in foul trouble that we needed to rebound and be physical and stuff like that, that were sitting on the bench for long periods of time," said Knight.
"That's what you have when you have a couple of young players on the team," Antigua said. "You have to teach them and help them get better at that."
That was this big L, a big lesson to be learned.