The issues that have pestered No. 9 North Carolina this season — turnovers and bad defense — were masked by a strong shooting performance when it beat then-No. 4 Gonzaga 103-90 at home last week.
But on Saturday, when the shots were not falling against No. 19 Kentucky, on a neutral court at the United Center, those mistakes finally came to light. UK defeated UNC 80-72, handing the Tar Heels their third loss of the season, less than two weeks before conference play begins.
“We’re better than that,” said UNC graduate senior Cam Johnson, who had 17 points. “Too many turnovers.”
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The Tar Heels (8-3) turned it over 17 times, handing the Wildcats easy fast break layups, and more opportunities at the basket. The Wildcats (9-2) finished with 20 points off turnovers. The Tar Heels shot 42 percent from the floor, missed defensive assignments, and also let Kentucky forwards P.J. Washington and Reid Travis get easy dunks in the paint.
The two UK post players combined to score 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.
“Our intention was to try to front the low post,” Williams said. “We didn’t get it fronted...one of the rules we have defensively is not to help up the lane, and three different times in the first half, we helped up the lane and they dished it down to either Reid or P.J., or one of their other big guys, and they dunked three of them because we just doing something we weren’t supposed to do.”
When UNC slowed Travis, UK freshman wing Keldon Johnson caught fire. He was 7-for-11 from the floor, 4-for-7 from 3, and finished with 21 points.
These lapses are not new. In most games, the Tar Heels have just been good enough to overcome their deficiencies. But against Texas in Las Vegas on Nov. 22, at Michigan on Nov. 28, and now Kentucky in Chicago on Saturday, it caught up to them, ending in defeat. UNC is now 3-3 in games away from the Dean Smith Center.
The Tar Heels got behind the Wildcats early, trailing 40-31 at halftime. They closed the gap to 47-43 in the second half with about 16 minutes left to play. But that was the closest they would get. Every time the Tar Heels got close, they either made a mistake, or the Wildcats had an answer.
“We got it to six, we turned the ball over,” UNC senior guard Kenny Williams said. “We got momentum, we turned the ball over.”
The energy in this game was also noticeably different than UNC’s game against Gonzaga. Against Gonzaga, players celebrated after dunks and big stops. This time, it was Kentucky doing the celebrating. The Wildcats appeared motivated by their energy.
Prior to their game against Kentucky, UNC had outrebounded its opponents by an average of 14.1 rebounds per game. On Saturday, the Wildcats outrebounded the Tar Heels 44-33. They also grabbed 12 offensive rebounds.
Coach Williams’ message to his players after the game was that they needed “buy in” a little more. That left some players desperately searching for an answer as to how they could get better. The players said they aren’t defying their coach. They are trying to play hard as they can, but admit they haven’t figured it out yet.
“I think it just comes down to paying closer attention to detail and trying to focus on understanding what our strengths are, and playing to those,” Maye said.
Said UNC freshman Nassir Little, “So it’s like one of those slippery slopes where, when you think you’re going hard, just give a little more than what you’re doing, I guess. And if we do that, I think we’ll be fine.”
When asked how his team “buys in more,” coach Williams said the players have to lose themselves in the game, and not be concerned with how they’re doing.
“They have to buy in more about the name on the front of the jersey,” he said. “If you lose yourself into the game, lose yourself into the success of the team, every individual will be taken care of.”
UNC won’t play another game until after Christmas on Dec. 29 against Davidson at home. Then it plays Harvard on Jan. 2.
After that, ACC play begins, and masking its deficiencies will only get tougher.