In the moment, nobody in the North Carolina locker room could appreciate what they’d been a part of that Saturday in Las Vegas. Nobody wanted to appreciate it, either. There was no solace in defeat and no admiration of the performance, regardless of the quality of the drama.
The Tar Heels’ 103-100 defeat against Kentucky on Dec. 17 is remembered, perhaps, as the best college basketball game that has been played this season. Back then, though, it left UNC coach Roy Williams wondering how well he might be able to move amid the exhaustion.
“John right now could run a marathon,” Williams said that day of Kentucky coach John Calipari. “And I can barely get up out of the dadgum chair. But that’s what happens when one guy wins and one guy loses.”
Even then, weeks before the start of conference play, long before UNC (30-7) and Kentucky (32-5) began to navigate the most difficult portions of their schedules, those that shaped these teams for March runs that were to come, there was a sense that maybe that was only the beginning. That these teams could meet again.
And so here we are, the encore: UNC-Kentucky, Part II, in the NCAA tournament South Regional championship game Sunday at 5:05 p.m. A trip to the Final Four at stake. Isn’t it fitting, given the history? There is the long-term history, the stuff that requires turning the pages of the record books for perspective.
Kentucky has won more college basketball games (2,239) than any other school, while UNC (with 2,203 victories) is third. UNC has played in more Final Fours (19) than any other school, while Kentucky (17) is third.
The Wildcats have won eight national championships, which is second to UCLA. UNC has won five, which is tied for third with Duke and Indiana. There are the revered coaching luminaries that still define these programs: Adolph Rupp. Dean Smith. Kentucky and UNC play in buildings named after those men.
There is all of that. And then there is the more recent history, too. There is what happened in December.
Kentucky 103, UNC 100. A regular-season epic – at least as much as any regular-season game in December can be described in such a way – that wasn’t decided until the final possession, when UNC sophomore guard Kenny Williams missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
Kenny Williams said then, standing next to the UNC bus that was to take the team back to the airport, that there might come a time when he’d look back on that Saturday with fondness. That maybe there might arrive a time when he could appreciate that game for what it was.
“Down the road I will,” he said. “... But right now it’s a little tough.”
The tantalizing possibility of a rematch emerged on Selection Sunday, with the announcement of the NCAA tournament field. There were the Tar Heels on the top line in the South, the No. 1 seed. And there, a few moments later, was Kentucky down at the bottom, the No. 2 seed.
Both teams survived difficult second-round tests; UNC against Arkansas and Kentucky against Wichita State. And both teams played well enough on Friday – UNC in a 92-80 victory against Butler, Kentucky in an 86-75 victory against UCLA – to avoid any anxiety or nerves in the final minutes.
After the Tar Heels’ victory on Friday night, a UNC-Kentucky rematch was only but a possibility. UNC had to wait to see which team prevailed in the late game at FedEx Forum though, naturally, Roy Williams and his players still received questions about what it’d be like to face the Wildcats again.
In his plain-talking way, Williams on Friday said Kentucky “scored three more points than we did.”
“And we didn’t play very well on the defensive end,” he said, “and Malik lit us up for 47.”
That would be Malik Monk, one of three Kentucky freshmen who are most likely in the final days of their time in college. Monk, a 6-foot-3 guard, essentially did what he wanted, when he wanted, against any UNC player that attempted to defend him.
Monk made 18 of his 28 attempts from the field. He made eight of his 12 3-point attempts, including two 3s in the final 81 seconds, when the Wildcats most needed them. He finished with 47 points, and only Duke’s Dick Groat, with 48 in 1952, had ever scored more against the Tar Heels.
This was Monk then, in Las Vegas: “Like a pick-up game. That’s what it felt like, to me.”
And here was Monk late on Friday night, with the rematch set: “I think they’re going to play me even tighter, so that means (De’Aaron) Fox is going to have his way or anybody else is going to have his way. We’re just going to see what they’re going to do at the beginning of the game, and we’re going to go off that.”
Regardless of what the Tar Heels attempt to do defensively, there’s a strong chance that part of its strategy on Sunday will include: “Don’t let Malik Monk score 47 points again.” And yet limiting Monk is only part of UNC’s challenge.
The Tar Heels will also have to contend with Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, two other 6-foot-3 guards who help make the Wildcats one of the fastest teams in the country. And what about size, you might ask? Kentucky has that, too.
Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, a native of Washington, N.C., has it. The 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman fouled out the first time against UNC, but not before finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds.
Best of the best
In the first go-around between these teams, both the Tar Heels and Wildcats shot at least 53 percent from the field. Four players, two from each team, scored at least 23 points. Both teams made at least nine 3-pointers.
Neither team committed more than 10 turnovers. Both teams scored 44 points in the paint.
“A great game,” Justin Jackson, the UNC junior forward, said on Friday. “It was up and down, high-scoring. Malik played amazing.”
Jackson received a reminder that he scored 34 points. He wasn’t too bad, either.
“I wasn’t,” he said, “but we came out with the loss, so it made it a little bit worse.”
The encore and the deeper history will be only part of the storylines on Sunday. There is also the supposed cultural difference between the programs.
Williams, the UNC coach, attempts to recruit the best of the best high school prospects, the ones who prefer to play college basketball for only a season before departing for the NBA. Kentucky, meanwhile, signs those players, year after year.
Calipari has offered such players a revolving door to the NBA: come to Lexington, play college basketball for five or six months, and off to the pros you go. It has been a system that, for Kentucky, has worked well.
The Tar Heels lack that sort of young star power. This UNC team, like the two teams before it, has relied on players that have spent years together, that in some ways have grown up together.
And that has worked, too. The Tar Heels, after all, are making their second consecutive appearance in a regional championship game. They’re one of three teams that have reached an NCAA tournament regional semifinal for three years running.
Yet the constitution of UNC’s roster has created a perception, as inaccurate as it might be, that Williams doesn’t embrace the best high school players. That he doesn’t want one-and-done talent. He has tried several times to eradicate the myth, but it endures.
Here in Memphis this week, Kentucky’s star freshmen have received no shortage of attention. Same with Lonzo Ball, the UCLA freshman guard who immediately declared himself eligible for the NBA draft after the Bruins lost on Friday night.
Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard, said it’d be “expected” if UNC had been overlooked.
“They’ve got high-level players, they’ve got a lot of guys who can potentially be a one-and-done, and today, our game is more of guys have stayed in the program for a while,” Berry said, comparing UNC to Kentucky and UCLA. “We don’t get as much hype as the other two teams.
“But you know, that’s fine. … they put on their pants just like we do.”
Hours later, after Berry and his teammates had long cleared out of their locker room at FedEx Forum, it became official: UNC-Kentucky, Part II was happening. The schools are meeting in a regional final for the fourth time, and first since 2011 – a Kentucky victory in Newark, N.J.
Looking ahead, Calipari after his team’s victory against UCLA laid the UNC praise on thick. He said the Tar Heels were “so good” and had been “so good all year.” He predicted that Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, would score 40 points on Sunday.
It wouldn’t be the first time that happened in a UNC-Kentucky game this season, that a player scored 40 points. Then came what was perhaps Calipari’s most honest assessment, thinking ahead to what awaited here on Sunday: “I’m, like, jacked up,” he said.
UNC vs. Kentucky
When: 5:05 p.m. Sunday
Where: FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.