A record Rupp Arena crowd on Saturday afternoon got to see both sides of the North Carolina spectrum.
In the first half, Roy Williams' Tar Heels looked like the bumbling, fumbling shell-shocked club that was run off the court by Syracuse a couple of weeks ago in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, and walked into halftime trailing Kentucky 43-28.
But in the final 20 minutes the Heels looked more like the team that dominated Michigan State from wire-to-wire on Tuesday, outscoring UK 38-25 in the second half. The run wasn't quite enough, though, as the Cats hung on for a 68-66 victory.
First off, Williams acknowledged the severe cramps that limited Kentucky guard John Wall aided the comeback.
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"Let's be honest, John getting hurt in the second half helped us," he said. "He dominated the first half."
Indeed, UNC had no answers for Wall in the first 20 minutes, as the freshman phenom sliced and diced his way to 13 points and five assists. UK enjoyed a 12-0 advantage in fast break points as it consistently beat the Heels down the floor for easy baskets.
"They ran us out of the gym," Williams said. "I don't think I've ever coached a team that was outscored (12-0) on the fast break in the first half. We looked and reacted like an inexperienced team in the first half."
But a lot of Carolina's other problems were self-inflicted. The Heels shot just 36.7 percent (11-for-30) and missed five shots from point-blank range. Williams cited his team's lack of patience in the post.
"If you go back and look at the last three minutes of the first half, we missed four shots from 1 foot," he said. "Two were almost dunks, and it was because we were rushing because Kentucky's defense made us rush."
North Carolina senior forward Deon Thompson said Kentucky's size in the paint posed a problem. At 6-foot-9, Thompson is the shortest player in UNC's six-man rotation in the paint. But UK was able to counter with 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins, 6-10 Daniel Orton and 6-9 Patrick Patterson.
"A lot of times when you have a 6-10 guy on you, you think you have to rush when you really don't," Thompson said. "In the second half we took our time and we were able to get what we wanted."
That allowed Carolina to slowly but surely crawl back into it. Sophomore Tyler Zeller gave UNC some stability in the paint by scoring repeatedly over the Kentucky pivot men with a left-handed jump hook, the last of which brought the Heels to within 59-56 with 4:29 left. Carolina would eventually cut it to two (63-61) on a baseline jumper by Thompson at :32, but the Cats closed it out on the free-throw line.
"We got it close but never could get over the hump," Williams said. "If we could have gotten over the hump we would have had a chance. It was the first half that really kicked our tails, but I told them at halftime we'd be right there at the end of the game."
Thompson wished the game could have been extended a little longer.
"If it had gone five more minutes I think we definitely would have won," he said. "We had all the momentum at the end."
Both teams are relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores and figure to be much better in February and March. When asked if they hoped to see Kentucky again down the road in the NCAA Tournament, Thompson and fellow senior Marcus Ginyard had quick responses.
"Most definitely," Thompson said. "We want another shot at them."
"There's no question about that," Ginyard said. "We hope we see those guys again."