NEWARK, N.J. — As Brandon Knight tumbled out of bounds and into the right knee of North Carolina coach Roy Williams with 9.3 seconds left, the Kentucky guard added injury to insult.
The Tar Heels’ coach said afterward that it hurt, but he would be okay. The same could be said for his team.
Kentucky: 76 UNC: 69
UNC fell 76-69 to Kentucky in the East Regional finals, finishing its season at 29-8 and one win shy of the Final Four.
A Tyler Zeller tip-in with 1:52 left in the game brought the Tar Heels within one point after having rallied from as many as 11 down in the second half. But Harrison Barnes missed a 3-pointer — one he said he’s accustomed to making at that time in a game — and DeAndre Liggins made a three on the other end, sealing the game for the Wildcats.
“When Liggins hit that three, I think that killed us,” John Henson said. “All we needed was a miss and I think we would have scored on the next time down.”
Barnes tried to draw contact on the subsequent 3-point attempt but it went begging. He finished the night with 18 points, all of which he would have given back for a UNC win.
“I tried to empty the tank and do whatever the team needed,” Barnes said. “Unfortunately I just didn’t have enough today.”
North Carolina had to battle against the Wildcats without Henson for most of the game. Henson, who dominated the paint in the Dec. 4 match against Kentucky, picked up his third foul with more than six minutes to play in the first half.
Without his length, UNC turned to its bench, which has been depleted through the year with injuries and transfers. In Henson’s place came Justin Watts, who couldn’t handle the larger, versatile Terrence Jones, who finished with seven first-half points and five rebounds.
The bench contributed zero points and one rebound for UNC in the first half. But the low totals were nothing new to the Tar Heels in the tournament. In the three previous NCAA tournament games, UNC’s three scholarship bench players combined to go 6-for-25 with 16 points and six turnovers.
Henson checked back into the game, but played only four minutes before fouling Darius Miller for his fourth foul. He wouldn’t return until the game narrowed to 59-55 with 7:43 left to play.
But what kept the Tar Heels competitive was Dexter Strickland’s defense. The sophomore guard has never received the praised his fellow starters have gotten all season, but his defense made him invaluable to the Tar Heels.
He forced four Kentucky turnovers in the first eight minutes of the second half that helped spark UNC’s comeback from an eight-point halftime deficit. He forced Knight into 7-of-18 shooting and three turnovers.
“(Knight) was the focal point of their offense,” Williams said. “For Dexter to do that for 37 minutes is about as tough a challenge as I’ve ever had any guard, and I don’t know I ever had anybody do a better job than Dexter did today.”
The Tar Heels climbed back on the other end with the help of team leading scorer Zeller and Barnes, who scored 10 second-half points. Barnes went on a roll with five minutes left and scored six straight points, including a 3-pointer over Liggins.
Running down the court, Barnes shouted at Liggins for an extended period of time in one of the first instances where he has visibly talked trash to the opponent.
“Lose myself in the game, I guess you could say,” Barnes said. “They had kind of been running what they wanted to run on offense and finally we had a bit of a breakthrough. I wore my emotions on my sleeve.”
Yet he couldn’t come through in the end like he had so many times before this season, missing his final three shots. And as his shots weren’t falling, NCAA workers came through the arena tunnel with East Regional champions T-shirts in hand.
Kentucky players were given their new attire as the buzzer sounded while the North Carolina T-shirts lay neatly folded in the shadows of the tunnel, never to be worn.
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