North Carolina this year was already involved in one of the great college basketball games in history, the national championship game more than eight months ago that Villanova won with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
For a non-conference game in December, though, it's never been better than it was on Saturday in the CBS Classic between UNC and Kentucky, two bitter non-conference rivals, two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport, the game not decided until the final buzzer.
Again, the Tar Heels were on the other side of history, this after a 103-100 defeat that came in what had to be one of the greatest regular-season games ever played. No one would argue with that assertion, at least, after 40 minutes that had a little bit of everything:
A first half with both teams scoring in the 50s, no shortage of fast breaks, dunks, alley-oops and layups, a dramatic finish with momentum swing after momentum swing. And, oh yes, one of great individual performances, ever, against the Tar Heels.
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That came courtesy of Malik Monk, the Kentucky freshman guard. He finished with 47 points, and made shot after shot – after shot – to lift the Wildcats to victory when it seemed in doubt in the final moments.
Only Duke's Dick Groat, who finished with 48 points against UNC in 1952, had ever scored more against the Tar Heels. Monk's final points, a 3-pointer from the left wing with 22 seconds remaining, were among the Wildcats' most important, if not the most.
The 3 gave Kentucky the lead after the Wildcats had briefly lost it during the final 90 seconds – first on Justin Jackson's 3-pointer with 97 seconds remaining and then again on Jackson's layup with 47 seconds to play, both moments sending the UNC bench into a celebratory uproar.
After Monk's final 3 – he made eight of those, and was 18-for-28 from the field overall – UNC's Isaiah Hicks missed a turnaround on the other end. That forced the Tar Heels to foul – Joel Berry, back after missing the past two games with a sprained ankle – fouled out in the process – and after De'Aaron Fox made a pair of free throws, the Tar Heels called a timeout with 1.4 seconds left.
Their first last-second play ended with Isaiah Briscoe intercepting the in-bounds pass, sliding out of bounds. There was still seven-tenths of a second remaining. Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard, wound up with a good look from the corner, but his shot landed stuck between the rim and the backboard.
And so it ended, a victory that send Kentucky fans running through the aisles, screaming in jubilation at T-Mobile Arena. When John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, entered a room just off the court for his postgame press conference he exhaled.
“Whew,” he said. “... "If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you're going to like basketball.”
Aside from Monk's stellar performance – the Tar Heels had no one who could guard him, not Williams nor Berry nor anyone else – foul trouble also doomed UNC. Both Kennedy Meeks and Berry fouled out, Meeks with 5 ½ minutes to play and Berry in the final seconds.
Hicks, meanwhile, finished with four fouls and missed about 10 minutes during the second half after he was called for his fourth with about 17 ½ minutes remaining. He reentered the game with about 6 ½ minutes to play, along with Berry, who was called for his fourth two minutes earlier.
Monk's performance overshadowed several others. Jackson finished with 34 points, the most he's ever scored in college, and he nearly did enough to help the Tar Heels overcome a 12-point first-half deficit. Berry in his return finished with 23 points, and made three 3s.