CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Never mind all the blue-blooded pedigree. Kentucky and North Carolina got sweaty and stinky in the powder-blue prettiness of the Dean Smith Center on Saturday.
The Cats answered Coach John Calipari's call for fight and zeal. Good thing, because for all the national championships, Final Four appearances and all-time victories (UK first, UNC third), the game was not a place for show ponies. It was where jump shots and appealing play went to die.
Kentucky lost 82-77, but not without a fight.
"We had chances to let go of the rope," Calipari said, "and we didn't."
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Not that the UK coach was happy or satisfied. As with earlier losses against Michigan State and Baylor, he lamented the rebound that got away or the defensive stop not executed that could have made all the difference.
But the Cats, who fell to 8-3 (and 0-3 against ranked opponents), put in sweat equity. At least, the North Carolina side thought so.
"A lot of young guys fought really doggone hard," UNC Coach Roy Williams said. "I didn't think it was an artistic game, but both teams fought really, really hard."
Kentucky and North Carolina combined for 57 fouls. The teams shot 88 free throws, missing 33.
The Cats faced an eight-point deficit with less than five minutes left, then got within three.
But North Carolina's leading scorer, Marcus Paige, hit a floater along the baseline.
Then after Andrew Harrison missed a jumper, the Tar Heels flashed one of the game's few highlight plays. Paige threw a fast-break lob that Brice Johnson dunked to put UK behind 72-65 with 1:16 left.
Kentucky got within 80-77 in the final 10 seconds. But Paige, the lone UNC player who shot confidently from the line (a Laettner-esque 10-for-10), sealed UK's fate by making two with six seconds left. He finished with a game-high 23.
Thirty-one fouls — easily the most in Calipari's five seasons as UK coach — reflected how hard the Cats played and how doggedly they sought to make North Carolina shoot free throws.
UK dominated the rebounding, 44-32, thus showing that the first white-out in UNC history and a capacity crowd mattered little.
But the Cats could not overcome the struggles of Julius Randle, who had 11 points and five rebounds. Aaron Harrison led the Cats with 20 points. Andrew Harrison added 17.
North Carolina, which earlier became the first team since UCLA in 1986-87 to beat the No. 1 team (Michigan State) and the defending national champion (Louisville) in the same season, improved to 7-2.
Calipari suggested North Carolina dictated play by denying passes to the wings and taking away post-ups. But UNC found it difficult to feel physically superior.
Of the rebounding, J.P. Tokoto said, "They beat us up pretty bad."
Williams recoiled at the suggestion the Tar Heels "bullied" Kentucky.
"We barely look good going through an airport," the UNC coach quipped. "I don't want a street fight with anybody. My God!"
After a half filled with fouls and foul-looking free throws, Kentucky trailed 33-30.
The deficit came in fitting, if aggravating fashion for UK. With 1.9 seconds left, the referees called Willie Cauley-Stein for fouling a driving James Michael McAdoo. It was his third foul, which did not bode well for the second half.
Calipari came several feet onto the court to protest. Whatever he said, he received a technical foul. As he left the court at halftime, he waved off ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards, whom UK fans may remember got rude treatment from former coach Billy Gillispie.
Paige, who had yet to score, made both technical free throws. McAdoo made one of two on the Cauley-Stein foul to give the Tar Heels their lead.
UK, which came into the game averaging 17.7 fouls, were called for 15 in the half. North Carolina was whistled for 11 fouls.
Neither team's leading scorer did much in the half. Randle and Paige, who came into the game averaging a combined 36.6 points, each scored two in the half.
Maybe Calipari's technical foul had a huge effect on the refs. More likely, UK's drive-drive-drive — and then drive some more — offense in the second half resulted in North Carolina getting seven fouls before the first television timeout of the second half.
Ultimately, Kentucky lost. But UK competed.
"They fought," Tokoto said. "They weren't going to come in here and just hand us the game. It was a challenge for us. It wasn't easy."