John Clay

Unfortunately for Kentucky, fortunately for North Carolina, March matters more

Much of life is not so much about what you do, but when you do it.

Timing matters.

In December, on a Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, in one of the best regular-season college basketball games you would ever hope to see, Kentucky beat North Carolina by three points in the CBS Sports Classic.

In March, on a Sunday afternoon at the FedEx Forum, in one of the best NCAA Tournament games you could ever hope to see, North Carolina beat Kentucky by two points in the finals of the South Regional.

Two games between two of the sport’s most successful programs, Kentucky scored 176 points, North Carolina 175.

Bottom line: March matters.

Sonnets will be written in Tar Heel Nation about Luke Maye, the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Huntersville, N.C., whose cold-blooded jumper from the left wing swished the net with just three-tenths of a second left to give North Carolina the 75-73 victory and a spot in Saturday’s Final Four.

Meanwhile, for Kentucky, the book closed abruptly on a season of 32 wins and six losses, its 14-game winning streak snapped, its goal of at least making the Final Four halted three points shy.

“My body just kind of went numb,” said UK guard De’Aaron Fox of when Maye’s shot went through. “I don’t have words for what I felt.”

In a game of equals, Kentucky fought foul trouble and other frustrations the entire first half. Fox played just eight minutes because of two quick fouls. The Cats shot just 37.5 percent. North Carolina shot 50. UK was outrebounded by five. Malik Monk, he of the 47 points in that December game, was held to six.

Yet surely the Cats were optimistic. The scoreboard showed them trailing just 38-33. Dominique Hawkins had again steadied the ship with 10 points. Fox would be back to build on his 39-point performance in Friday’s win over UCLA. Surely Monk would shake free at some point. A comeback was in the offing.

The Cats did come back. Isaac Humphries, the rarely used sophomore center, came out of nowhere to score a career-high 12 points. Eight came in a dizzying three-minute stretch that turned a 57-54 North Carolina lead into a 64-59 Kentucky edge when Humphries nailed a jumper from the circle.

Only 5:09 remained. All the Cats needed was to bring it home. But they couldn’t.

It fell apart quickly. North Carolina’s Theo Pinson scored on a drive. Teammate Justin Jackson scored on a drive. Pinson made two free throws. Maye hit both ends of the bonus. Joel Berry scored off a drive. When Pinson sank two more free throws with 53 seconds left, North Carolina had scored 12 straight points for 71-64 lead.

Kentucky didn’t quit. Fox connected on a three with 46 seconds remaining. Monk, who had not scored since the 4:31 mark of the first half, emerged to nail a three with 38.5 seconds left to pull UK within 71-70 then another to tie the game at 73-73 with 7.2 seconds remaining.

Here’s the thing: Roy Williams’ team always gets the ball out of the net and goes. They practice it over and over. And that is what the Heels did. Pinson rushed the ball up the floor. Maye was left open on the wing — “We helped a little too much,” Fox said — and a terrific game was suddenly over.

In Vegas, it was Monk who hit the cold-blood shot that ultimately won the game. His, too, was from the left wing. It was a fitting capper on an epic individual effort that ultimately did not matter as much as March. Such is the nature of the college basketball beast.

Afterward, the small Kentucky locker room was jammed with media cameras and microphones and tape recorders but few tears. Not like last year, when Kentucky lost in the second round at Indiana. There was disappointment, yes — “I can’t believe it’s over,” Hawkins said, “but it’s not the end of the world” — but also what seemed to be genuine respect for the team out on the floor cutting down nets.

“They’re a great team,” Fox said. “Good luck to them.”

That’s life.

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