It is not that the North Carolina Tar Heels have nightmares in which the number “47” flashes throughout their dreams.
Malik Monk’s 47-point explosion in Kentucky’s scintillating 103-100 win over the Tar Heels Dec. 17 in Las Vegas did not stay in Vegas, though, either.
“There was nothing you could do,” North Carolina senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “He made shots on me. He made shots on everybody.”
Said Tar Heels forward Justin Jackson: “Malik played crazy.”
Adds UNC guard Nate Britt: “For Monk to get that hot, it was pretty insane.”
On Sunday, with a Final Four berth at stake, North Carolina will get another chance to slow Monk and Kentucky.
Looking every bit like a No. 1 seed should, the Tar Heels (30-7) rocked No. 4 Butler (25-9) 92-80 in an NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal in FedExForum.
Roy Williams’ Tar Heels dominated the smaller Bulldogs under the basket, winning the battle of the boards 38-26 and outscoring Butler 42-26 in the paint.
North Carolina got 26 points from lead guard Joel Berry II, 24 from swing man Jackson and 16 off the bench from sophomore forward Luke Maye.
Carolina started the game scalding hot from outside, too, making six of its first seven three-point attempts. For the game, UNC had 22 assists on 31 made field goals.
It was impressive.
“I thought they were terrific tonight,” said Butler Coach Chris Holtmann, the former Jessamine County High School guard. “They played exceptionally well.”
With the win, North Carolina will face No. 2 seed Kentucky (32-5) in the NCAA Tournament South Region finals here Sunday.
It will be a battle of the bluest of college hoops blue bloods, with UNC seeking its 20th Final Four trip and UK its 18th.
Historically, North Carolina was long the one team among college basketball’s traditionally elite programs that had Kentucky’s number. The Tar Heels lead the all-time series 23-15 and have twice (1977 and 1995) beaten the Cats in the NCAA tourney round of eight.
In the John Calipari era, however, the worm has turned. Under Calipari, UK is 5-2 vs. UNC, including a victory over Carolina in the 2011 East Region finals.
After avenging a regular-season loss to UCLA on Friday night in the round of 16, UK will be on the other side of that dynamic against UNC.
The Cats’ 103-100 win over UNC in Vegas was such a breathtaking display of up-tempo basketball, it was the talk of college hoops.
Especially Monk, who hit 18-of-28 shots, 8-of-12 three pointers, and made the game-deciding trey.
“We played Kentucky, and they scored three more points than we did, and we didn’t play very well on the defensive end,” Carolina Coach Roy Williams recalled. “And Malik lit us up for 47.”
To a man, Carolina’s players say the Tar Heels’ near-death experience against Arkansas in the round of 32 — a game in which UNC trailed by five inside the final four minutes only to pull it out with a 12-0 run to finish the contest — has toughened the team.
“Being down and having to fight back to win that game was huge for us,” UNC junior swingman Theo Pinson says. “It builds confidence, it helps everybody understand we can win any game. If we are down, we can still win.”
Said Hicks: “Down with three minutes to go, being able to tough that out — defense can solve a lot of problems for you.”
The biggest difference in the North Carolina team Kentucky will see Sunday, the Tar Heels say, and the one UK torched for 103 points in Las Vegas is UNC has embraced the defensive end of the court.
“It’s effort more than anything,” Britt says. “We had to change our will to want to defend and (do it) on every single possession.”
One way to prove that your defensive commitment would be to slow down the team that scored 103 points — and the player who got 47 — on you.
Says Pinson: “At this point, if you don’t defend, you go home.”