Date story published: Sunday, January 4, 2004
As North Carolina Coach Roy Williams saw it, Kentucky's 61-56 victory yesterday was more about good feeling than good playing.
Both teams effectively disguised their status as the two winningest programs in college basketball. Kentucky again futilely attempted the most elementary of skills -- putting the ball in the basket -- for a large chunk of the first half and the decisive final stretch run. Living down to Williams' subterranean expectations, North Carolina simply stopped defending for a pivotal period in the second half.
After the two superpowers played mutually assured destruction, the game came down to a high-arcing 22-foot shot over two defenders with the shot clock down to five seconds and the game clock showing 24 seconds.
Not exactly high percentage.
"My guess is Tubby would have liked a layup rather than a deep shot over two guys' hands," Williams said of UK Coach Tubby Smith.
Maybe so, but Smith definitely got the shooter he wanted: senior guard Gerald Fitch, the buzzer-beating hero of several UK victories.
"We had to take a shot," Smith said. "I'm glad Gerald was the one who took the shot."
Fitch's shot, which came off a Chuck Hayes screen in front of the UK bench, put the Cats ahead 60-56. It also dashed Williams' hopes for victory. "I honestly thought they'd miss the shot and we'd go down and win," said Williams, who made a point of speaking to Fitch as the teams shook hands afterward. "I told him it was a shot he'd remember for a long, long time."
Fitch downplayed his clutch jumper as "nothing big. Just trying to be a leader."
Fitch also played it cool about his team-high 21 points and, most importantly for this game, his single-handed success in giving Kentucky a perimeter shooting attack. He made all five of Kentucky's three-point baskets and all seven of the Cats' baskets from outside 5 feet.
The sharpshooting blew away memories of Fitch's 8-for-27 shooting the previous two games and his 2-for-8 start against Carolina.
"I felt I had been settling on the three-point line too much," he said. "I wasn't aggressive. Playing laid-back. I wasn't making things happen."
Kentucky (9-1) followed a familiar pattern. A quick start (10-2 lead barely three minutes into the game) gave way to feeble shooting (4-for-24 over the final 16 minutes of the half). With Melvin Scott making three three-pointers, Carolina took the lead midway through the half and assumed a 28-20 lead at intermission.
Before taking the court for the second half, Hayes huddled his UK teammates and gave them a message.
"That we were playing terrible," he said. "That we were way better than how we were playing. We ain't playing like we love the game. We're just playing like we're going through the motions."
Even with fouls causing Hayes to miss a chunk of the second half, Kentucky dominated. The Cats made 15 of their first 19 shots of the second half. Erik Daniels scored 12 of his 18 points in that stretch.
Smith credited a halftime adjustment where the Cats began mimicking the pick-and-roll play Carolina used in the first half. "We felt, till they stop us, keep going to it," Smith said.
To hear Williams, he almost grinded his pencil into his clipboard trying to get the Tar Heels to defend a screen set for the dribbler.
"I think we work on screen on the ball more than anybody in America," he said. "During one timeout, I drew the spot on the clipboard where I wanted (a defender) so much it caused a rut in the clipboard. I grooved it in there. We go out and we go to the wrong spot."
Fitch hit three foul-line jumpers in a four-possession span to draw UK even at 37 with 13:12 left.
A Daniels layup gave the Cats the lead for good at 43-41 with 10:57 left.
UK led by as many as six down the stretch. But point guard Raymond Felton's only three-pointer of the game brought North Carolina within 57-56 in the final minute and set up the Fitch shot that separated two teams in need of improvement.
"It was a great game in terms of competitiveness," Williams said. "It was not a great game in how pretty it was or how well either team played. But neither team is very pretty in most situations anyway. ...
"(You) feel a heck of a lot better in the other locker room even when you play poorly if you can win at the end."