CHAPEL HILL — Pick a problem, pick an issue, pick a scapegoat, and find a reason North Carolina won Saturday. Everyones an expert when it comes to what the Tar Heels cant do right. Apparently, they have been listening.
They followed up a disheartening loss to Illinois with a gritty win over Kentucky precisely by doing everything they hadnt been doing. By playing tough defense, taking care of the ball and pounding it inside, the Tar Heels outfought the Wildcats for a 75-73 win, the biggest at the Smith Center in more than a year.
Its going to be great for us, said Tyler Zeller, who led North Carolina with a career-high 27 points. Obviously, we cant be concerned with just winning one game, but this should give us confidence that we can beat this caliber of team and that we are this caliber of team.
After making only one 3-pointer in the first half and throwing up a number of awkward outside jumpers, the Tar Heels got the ball inside in the second half, drawing fouls and getting the ball to Zeller.
Harrison Barnes didnt score in the second half, and no one noticed.
A team not known for making free throws with any consistency -- witness John Hensons back-to-back airballs -- was dynamite in that department down the stretch, going 14-for-17 from the line over the final six minutes and holding off Kentucky without making a single bucket.
The perennially unpopular Larry Drew II, meanwhile, had an unimpressive line -- seven points, four assists -- that completely undersold his composure with the ball and tenacious defense in the second half. He was a pillar of stability Saturday, holding Brandon Knight to two points on 1-for-6 shooting in the second half.
Drew was the catalyst as the Tar Heels discovered, in the meat of the second half, that they are in fact capable of playing tenacious defense -- and against an opponent that excels at creating shots, no less.
They held Kentucky into deep into the shot clock on a number of possessions, and even if the Wildcats were trying to run the clock down at that point, the Tar Heels consistently kept the ball from going where Calipari wanted it.
When you have to play defense for 35 seconds, that requires discipline, especially against a team that can put the ball on the floor as well as Kentucky can, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. For us, it was important to be able to get some stops down the stretch.
At the least, the Tar Heels showed they can beat teams at their talent level -- or above, depending on ones assessment of No. 10 Kentucky -- without going 7-for-12 from 3-point range or shooting 60 percent from the floor, like the win over Michigan State last year that proved to be more mirage than model for success.
And before anyone gets too excited, it should be noted that this was a Kentucky team with some serious issues. The Wildcats started the game with three forwards. Two of them were in foul trouble by halftime and all three fouled out. That allowed Henson to run wild inside in the first half and Zeller to dominate in the second half.
This shows, today shows what we have to do every day, North Carolina guard Leslie McDonald said. Coming out here and playing like this is exactly what we have to do every game.
Only time will tell if this is a turning point or an aberration, but everyone in Chapel Hill is hoping its the former.
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