CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — This North Carolina team became the first unanimous No. 1 since The Associated Press began its pre-season poll in 1981. The Tar Heels hope to become the third team to stay No. 1 throughout a season.
Kentucky? The Wildcats were not ranked in the poll for the first time since 1990 and simply hoped to show improvement here Tuesday night after an upset loss to Virginia Military Institute on opening night.
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Alas, each team looked its part as North Carolina outclassed Kentucky 77-58 with All-America center Tyler Hansbrough tied behind its back.
North Carolina (2-0) weaved its superiority almost seamlessly from tip-off to final buzzer. Despite Hansbrough remaining sidelined with a leg injury, the Tar Heels were better inside, thanks largely to Deon Thompson.
With Jodie Meeks struggling to make shots and UK's point guards still in learning mode, North Carolina was better on the perimeter despite not having its best outside defender, Marcus Ginyard.
Kentucky fell to 0-2 to start a season for only the third time since 1926, but it took solace in a more competitive second half.
"The sign of a light at the end of a tunnel was our ability to fight," said Patrick Patterson, who scored 13 of his 19 points in the second half.
One team's reason to believe was another's cause to work on shortcomings in practice. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams lamented his team's failure to put the hammer down on UK.
"We were fantastic the first 10 or 12 minutes," he said. "After that, I didn't think the defense was nearly as aggressive. ... After that, we meandered around."
Williams noted how the Tar Heels followed a similar pattern in beating — but not crunching — Penn 86-71 in their opener.
Kentucky also repeated its first-game performance with a glut of turnovers. After 25 against VMI, the Cats had 28 against the Tar Heels.
Although acknowledging a bumpy ride with the UK guards, Coach Billy Gillispie credited North Carolina.
"The No. 1 reason we had a hard time was we were playing a really good team that played really good defense," Gillispie said. "They really attacked our weakness. That's what really good teams do."
The only question was the margin: Would it exceed North Carolina's biggest victory in the series (41-20 in 1924)? UNC settled for its second-largest margin.
Thompson led North Carolina with a career-high 20 points.
Meeks equaled Patterson's team-high 19 points for UK.
Playing as tough as Somali pirates, North Carolina jumped on Kentucky from the start and kept stomping throughout much of the first half.
After winning the tap (one of UK's few triumphs), Meeks rushed a three-pointer that hit nothing but backboard. That started him on the way to a 5-for-20 shooting game. He also committed a career-high six turnovers.
"He's a really good player," Williams said of Meeks. "But he's got a lot of load to carry for them."
Gillispie saluted Meeks' effort, which included seven rebounds.
Thompson dominated the boards early. That allowed him to score 12 of North Carolina's first 19 points.
Although UK held a 37-35 rebounding edge, Gillispie lamented getting "destroyed" by North Carolina's 16 offensive rebounds.
North Carolina zoomed to a 25-6 lead, a breakout that Gillispie twice tried to stall by calling timeouts. Both times he chose not to wait for a television timeout to halt the bleeding.
Kentucky committed 17 turnovers (and had only five assists) in a dismal first-half display of ball handling. Carolina outscored UK 15-4 in points off turnovers in the half and 26-6 for the game.
When Carolina blocked out of bounds a nonchalant Patterson pass near mid-court, Gillispie hung his hand and put a hand to his forehead.
When Kentucky did score, Carolina countered quickly. Three times the Tar Heels scored within eight seconds of a UK basket.
The second half brought little change. It didn't help that Perry Stevenson picked up his second, third and fourth fouls by the 17:59 mark.
When Patterson scored off a post feed, the play must have startled the public address announcer, who told the crowd, "(Michael) Porter gets it in to Patterson."
Meanwhile, the North Carolina lead grew to its zenith on Thompson's first second-half basket: a quick turnaround shot from the baseline over a flat-footed Patterson. It put the Tar Heels ahead 52-31 with 13:35 left.
Thereafter, UK charged or Carolina "meandered," depending on your point of view.
Kentucky got as close as 13 points six times in the second half. A miraculous comeback seemed almost possible with the lead 64-51. UK called time with 5:31 to plot a way to get closer.
After the timeout, the Cats couldn't get a shot as Meeks got caught in traffic in the lane as the 35-second shot clock expired.
UNC freshman Tyler Zeller took a hard fall on a layup attempt late in the game.
Afterward, Williams said Zeller had been taken to a hospital for X-rays on a wrist.
The UNC fans booed Ramon Harris, who fouled Zeller on the play. But Williams defended the UK player.
"Let's get something straight," Williams said. "It was an aggressive play. It was a hard foul. But I don't think it was a dirty play."