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HEELS' FIRE BURNS UK

Date story published: Sunday, December 5, 2004

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Kentucky lacked North Carolina's experience, home-court advantage and dig-in-the-Heels refusal to lose a fifth straight time to one of its few blueblooded brethren.

So UK's 91-78 loss at North Carolina yesterday contained a sense of inevitability.

As reporters kept asking what-happened questions, UK Associate Coach David Hobbs felt compelled to say, "There's no disgrace to get beat by North Carolina at North Carolina in the fifth game of your career."

The fifth-game reference applied to UK's four freshmen, two of whom started against a Carolina team that had seven juniors or seniors among its first eight players.

UK's freshmen showed their age, especially early when even the veteran players shrunk from this -- to add local color --Michael Jordanesque leap up in competition. It took less than eight minutes for North Carolina to bury Kentucky under a 24-6 deficit and apply a stark perspective on the Cats' earlier victories over the Coppin States of college basketball.

"We were looking to set the tone," North Carolina's junior point guard, Raymond Felton, said of the early haymaker. "Letting them know what kind of team we are. Nobody on our campus had ever beaten them. We wanted to let them know it was going to be different."

No. 8 Kentucky (4-1) never led, but did manage to twice close within six points early in the second half. With freshmen and unsung reserves like Ravi Moss and Bobby Perry joining Kelenna Azubuike as contributors, the Cats got within seven points at the 4:22 mark of the second half.

But each time, either North Carolina beat UK in transition or the Cats took what Coach Tubby Smith termed "ill-advised" shots. Neither happened often last season when Kentucky rode advantages in experiences and grittiness to a 61-56 victory that clearly still stuck in North Carolina's craw.

The difference this year? "Maturity," said second-year North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who tongue-lashed his team in Rupp Arena last season. "Familiarity with what we want to do."

Williams termed the Heels in Rupp Arena last season as "the least competitive, least focused and least energized team I ever had going into a big environment."

Junior center Sean May, whose 19 rebounds led North Carolina to an overwhelming 51-30 advantage on the boards, acknowledged the desire to make amends for last season's loss at Kentucky.

"We talked about that -- that Coach was the only person that had ever beaten Kentucky -- at the pre-game (meal)," he said. "And he said, 'It's about time you get one. It's going to be tough and it's not going to be easy by any means, but you guys are capable of doing it.' "

No. 9 North Carolina (6-1) did not have it easy. Of UK's rallies, Willliams said, "We want to keep attacking. I always say if the other team makes a run, the best way to deal with that is to attack."

Kentucky set a priority on stopping North Carolina's transition game, then watched the back of the Heels racing downcourt. North Carolina made seven of its first eight shots, three on fast-break finishes, in zipping to early leads of 8-0, 14-4 and finally 24-6 with 12:33 left.

"A big blow to the stomach," Perry called it.

The final count on North Carolina layups/dunks/putbacks was 35, guard Patrick Sparks said. That had to be an exaggeration, given the Tar Heels made 29 shots. But it felt correct.

"I never had a team get so many layups against us," Smith said. "That can take the wind out of your sails."

To Kentucky's credit, the Cats kept battling. UK scored the second half's first eight points -- four by freshman big man Randolph Morris and four by Azubuike -- to close within six, 47-41.

Then Carolina's leading scorer, Rashad MCants, laid in a high-low pass from May. McCants led the Heels with 28 points.

UK's rally stalled when Morris took a wild shot on the drive and Chuck Hayes, who didn't score until the 14:47 mark of the second half, tried a three-pointer on the next two possessions.

That set a rally-followed-by-questionable-shot pattern. Later, the Cats closed within seven, 79-72, then got an air-ball baseline shot from Perry and a wild leaning bank shot from Sparks.

Those shots, part of a two-minute scoreless span, sealed UK's fate.

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