No mystery to the Kentucky-North Carolina game Sunday. The Tar Heels were determined to stifle UK’s star freshmen, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, and make some other Wildcat win the game.
Dominique Hawkins and Isaac Humphries were up to the task.
Those two reserves — one a celebrated homey (Hawkins) and the other an import from Australia (Humphries) — gave Kentucky a chance to go to the Final Four for the fifth time in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach.
But it wasn’t to be. Luke Maye’s final-second jumper won it for North Carolina, 75-73.
When asked about making someone other than Monk or Fox be Kentucky’s difference-maker, UNC center Kennedy Meeks said, “That was the game plan. Just limit their scoring. … They were really our primary focus.”
With Monk and Fox limited to combined 9-for-24 shooting, Kentucky played uphill. The Cats did not lead until two-plus minutes into the second half and were ahead for only 18 seconds until Humphries came alive.
Humphries scored six straight points, and eight of 10 for UK in a three-minute stretch that put the Cats ahead 64-59 with 5:09 left. Humphries scored 12 points, eclipsing his previous career high of nine points.
Then the magic ended.
North Carolina went on a 12-0 run to lead 71-64 with 53.5 seconds left. UK Coach John Calipari cited poor execution when North Carolina switched to a zone for UK’s six straight empty possessions.
Then the magic returned.
Kentucky, which was scoreless for more than four minutes, got a three-pointer from Fox to reduce the deficit to 71-67 with 46.8 seconds left. Fox finished with 13 points.
Then, Meeks could not inbound the ball and was called for a five-second violation.
Monk, who had been scoreless since the 4:31 mark of the first half, hit a three-pointer with 38.5 seconds left to reduce UNC’s lead to 71-70.
After North Carolina netted a Justin Jackson layup by throwing long over UK’s press, Monk made another three to tie it 73-73 with 7.2 seconds left. Monk, who finished with 12 points, said he thought the game was going into overtime.
Maye, whose double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) led the Tar Heels past Butler in Friday’s semifinal, won it with a jumper from the left side with three-tenths of a second left.
“After that big shot that Malik hit, they really didn’t get back on defense,” Meeks said. “Luke was open. Luke is a shooter. I feel like that was an easy shot.”
Monk said a UK player was supposed to switch to Maye, but it didn’t happen.
Kentucky finished with a 32-6 record.
North Carolina improved to 31-7.
The final dramatics contrasted with the kind of defensive-minded, gritty game that both teams anticipated.
The first half breathed life in Saturday’s talk about this game not resembling the teams’ glitzy shootout in Las Vegas.
UK trailed 38-33 at halftime. That was about 20 points less than either team scored in Vegas, where the Cats led 56-51 at the break.
Kentucky did not lead in the first half, and a halftime deficit did not bode well. UK had a 1-3 record when trailing at intermission, which sharply contrasted with a 29-2 record when ahead.
North Carolina’s track record was nearly identical: 28-2 when ahead at half, 2-5 when trailing.
Kentucky took the initiative as the second half began. When Bam Adebayo made two free throws with 17:35 remaining, UK had its first lead: 39-38.
The first lead — and first time Kentucky did not trail since the 19:24 mark of the first half — lasted 18 seconds.
A freshman mistake bolstered UK’s return to comeback mode. Monk fouled Jackson on a three-point shot. The four-point play — and Monk’s third foul — put North Carolina ahead 44-39 with 15:47 left.
Although North Carolina stifled Fox and Monk (a combined 5-for-18 shooting at the third television timeout), Kentucky stayed close.
The Cats’ defense prevented North Carolina from pulling away. The Tar Heels made only six of their first 19 shots in the second half.
Ultimately, North Carolina’s defense on Monk (by Jackson) and Fox (by Theo Pinson) complicated Kentucky’s chances of winning.
“He just face-guarded me the whole time,” Monk said of Jackson. “They face-guard, it’s hard to get open.”
It also proved — just barely — too much to overcome.
What: NCAA Tournament semifinals
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Game 1: Gonzaga (36-1) vs. South Carolina (26-10), 6:09 p.m.
Game 2: North Carolina (31-7) vs. Oregon (33-5), about 8:49 p.m.