When it ended the people who’d been cheering on Kentucky spilled out of their seats and into the aisles, jumping, screaming. John Calipari, the Wildcats coach, exhaled when he sat down to face reporters. Roy Williams, his North Carolina counterpart, looked exhausted.
People on the Kentucky side spoke with jubilation, and relief, after the Wildcats’ 103-100 victory on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic. Some UNC players, meanwhile, spoke of appreciating what they’d been a part of – one day, that is, but not now. Not in the aftermath.
About eight and a half months ago the Tar Heels (10-2) found themselves on the other side of history, reeling after that last-second loss against Villanova in what might have been the greatest national championship game ever played. And now this, something a little bit similar albeit on a smaller stage.
The stakes weren’t nearly as high on Saturday, but it was still No. 6 UNC and No. 7 Kentucky, meeting for the 13th time as top-10 teams. The school with the most victories in college basketball history (Kentucky, now with 2,217) against the school with the most Final Four appearances (UNC, with 19).
And if ever a regular-season game met the hype it happened on Saturday afternoon at the sparkling new T-Mobile Arena, where the Tar Heels and Wildcats (10-1) played amid a party-like atmosphere – the air tinged with a subtle scent of booze – steps away from neon lights and slot machines. The 40 minutes were as compelling as anybody will ever see, the drama unfolding until the final shot.
Kenny Williams, the North Carolina sophomore guard, had a chance to force overtime then. For a play that began with seven-tenths of a second remaining, Williams generated a good look – a 3-point attempt from the right corner to tie. His attempt landed stuck between the rim and the backboard, setting off a euphoric celebration among the thousands of Kentucky supporters who’d made the trip.
“Whew,” Calipari said, exhaling the word as if he’d just been sprinting. “... If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you’re going to start liking basketball – ‘Like, wow, if that’s what it is, I’m going to watch that.’ ”
Calipari spoke with energy, enthusiasm. Roy Williams, meanwhile, sounded spent.
The Tar Heels trailed by as many as 12 points during the first half, and they trailed by 10 with 7 minutes, 47 seconds to play. And then Luke Maye, of all players, made two 3-pointers to cut Kentucky’s lead to four, foreshadowing the final act that was to come.
Las Vegas is a showman’s town, known for its magic and music and performers whose images are plastered on billboards all around town. It’s a city of cirque du soleil and cabaret, and for a little more than two hours on Saturday there wasn’t a better show anywhere than the one between UNC and Kentucky.
It starred UNC’s Justin Jackson, who finished with 34 points, his high in a college game. And Joel Berry, the Tar Heels point guard who was back after missing the past two games with a sprained ankle. He finished with 23 points and seven assists before fouling out in the final seconds.
And, oh yes, Malik Monk, the Kentucky freshman.
He finished with 47 points, the final three of which gave the Wildcats the lead, for good, with 22 seconds to play. The shot came from the left wing, in front of the Kentucky bench. Calipari, ever wise, suggested Monk pass up the outside shot and penetrate.
“But if I was 7-for-11 at that point in the game, I’d shoot the sucker from three as well,” Roy Williams said. “I know John was a player, but he wasn’t as good as Malik. He’s a lot better coach than Malik, but I probably would have been yelling drive the ball to the basket as well.
“I think when he shot the ball and it went in, John was glad he didn’t listen to him.”
Kenny Williams spent the most time defending – or attempting to defend – Monk. Berry tried in a few moments, as well, and so did Brandon Robinson, a freshman wing forward. Whoever was guarding Monk, or trying to guard him, it didn’t much matter.
Only one player in history had ever scored more in a game against UNC than Monk did on Saturday. It happened 64 years ago, when Duke’s Dick Groat finished with 48 points at Cameron Indoor Stadium. By halftime Monk had 27, and perhaps there was a thought that his shooting touch would eventually cool.
It didn’t. Monk made 18 of his 28 attempts from the field, and eight of his 12 3-pointers.
“He got hot,” Kenny Williams said simply, standing afterward outside of UNC’s bus. “He got hot early. He got himself going, and he got into rhythm. And I was just doing, trying to do everything I could. I was trying to get a hand up on all the shots, and I tried to keep him from catching the ball.”
But then there were the screens, Kenny Williams said, sometimes three or four on one possession. And even if he fought through them and raised a hand, Monk more often than not made the shot, anyway.
“Just one of those nights,” Kenny Williams said. “He was on fire.”
And yet the Tar Heels had their chance, still, despite one of the greatest individual performances any player has ever had against them. UNC led 98-95 with 97 seconds remaining after Jackson’s 3-pointer near the top of the key. That gave UNC its first lead since early in the first half.
Kentucky tied it on a 3-pointer from – who else? – Monk on the Wildcats’ next possession, before Jackson gave UNC its final lead on a layup with 47 seconds remaining. And that set up the dramatics to follow, none more memorable than Monk’s final 3 with 22 seconds left.
The afternoon will be remembered for that moment. But the Tar Heels will remember their slow start, too – and the foul trouble that limited them throughout. Both Berry and Kennedy Meeks fouled out – Meeks, the senior forward, with 5½ minutes remaining.
Hicks finished with four fouls, the third of which came midway through the first half. He collected it while lying on his back, and the moment sent Roy Williams into a rage. He ripped off his jacket and flung it against the bench, earning a technical foul in the process.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Williams said, though he defended his protest of the call. “... They should have called a technical on Roy Williams. Don’t think I’ve had one in a couple of years, so it was probably time.”
While Williams finished up with reporters, the Tar Heels’ locker room emptied. Berry walked back to it, and a Kentucky fan congratulated him, appreciative of the theater Berry and the Tar Heels had provided.
Under Williams, they entered Saturday 52-1 in games in which they’d scored at least 100 points, the lone loss coming against Wake Forest in triple-overtime in 2003. Now UNC was 52-2 in such games, and Williams said, “I can barely get up out of the dadgum chair.”
There might come a day when he and his players could appreciate what they’d been a part of.
“Down the road I will,” Kenny Williams said.
But now wasn’t the time. He stepped back onto the bus, and the Tar Heels pulled away, left to contemplate their place in another classic that left them with misery.