Roy Williams’ North Carolina teams have always preferred turning basketball games into a 40-minute dash. Most opponents simply aren’t fast enough to keep up.
But in Saturday’s 68-66 loss at No. 5 Kentucky, the Tar Heels got beat at their own game. Freshman phenom John Wall and the Wildcats ran all over No. 10 North Carolina during the first half.
“We didn’t do a very good job of sprinting back and getting picked up,” Williams. “And they just ran us out of the gym.”
The 15-point halftime lead for Kentucky (8-0) was telling. But even more indicative were the 12 Wildcat fast-break points, compared to zero for the Tar Heels (7-2).
“It was pretty embarrassing that we didn’t have any fast-break points in the first half,” Larry Drew II said. “Me being the point guard, it’s all eyes on me. So we had no fast break points, (Coach) looked at me like, ‘What is he doing?’”
The catalyst for Kentucky’s instant offense was Drew’s counterpart, Wall.
With a Rupp Arena record 24,468 fans shouting every time he touched the ball, Wall didn’t disappoint. He took it right at Drew and whomever else Williams threw at him.
Thirteen of his 16 points and five of his seven assists came in the first period to spark an early 28-2 run and build UK’s lead.
“John dominated the game in the first half,” Williams said. “He really attacks you. He attacks you with 6-4 size and long arms and quickness.”
But as Williams predicted at halftime, his team had a run left.
And with Wall in the locker room receiving treatment for cramps, North Carolina made that run.
The Tar Heels chipped away at Kentucky’s lead until the deficit was at three points with just less than 4:30 to play.
“We just stopped hanging our heads,” Marcus Ginyard said. “We started to believe that we had a chance, started playing our style of basketball, and it was tough for them to handle at times.”
But at that point, UNC’s offense stagnated.
Drew missed a 3-pointer and committed a turnover, and then Ginyard missed a trey of his own before UK made it a two-possession game.
From there, the Wildcats made their free throws and kept North Carolina at arm’s length until the final buzzer. A 3-pointer from Will Graves as time expired made the final score look closer than it truly was.
“We got it close but we never did really get over the hump,” Williams said. “We had three different opportunities that we could have tied.”
Graves, Deon Thompson and Tyler Zeller each reached double-digits for North Carolina, but the team shot just 38.8 percent from the floor in its lowest-scoring game of the season.
The Tar Heels dished out just 11 assists and turned the ball over 16 times, 11 of which came in the first period. And Kentucky capitalized, converting those 11 mistakes into 20 points.
“We looked like a really inexperienced team in the first half,” Williams said. “We reacted like an inexperienced team. And that’s an excuse. There’s no reason to do that.”
North Carolina has a week off before its next game, and it’s now halfway through a four-game stretch that includes three top-10 teams.
But in the matchup between the two winningest programs in men’s college basketball history, the Tar Heels dug themselves too deep a hole to climb out of.
“We were always just one step behind,” Ginyard said. “We’d be doing so well, and then we always just let them get their nose back into it a little more than us.”
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