LAS VEGAS — In a matchup that more than lived up to its billing, the North Carolina men's basketball team fell 103-100 to Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The No. 6 Wildcats (10-1) led the No. 7 Tar Heels (10-2) for nearly the entire second half, but UNC took the lead in the final minutes to give Kentucky a scare. A heroic effort from first-year Malik Monk was too much for the Tar Heels to overcome, though, as North Carolina drops its second game of the season.
The game started at a breakneck pace, with both teams sprinting down the court after each change of possession. First-year phenom Malik Monk scored 15 of the Wildcats' first 21 points before subbing out eight minutes in, with neither team pulling further than five points ahead during that time.
The two sides combined to score 45 points in the final eight minutes of the half. Kentucky eventually pushed the lead to 12 before the Tar Heels' last surge — led by Justin Jackson (20 points) and Joel Berry (13) — settled the halftime score at 56-51.
The second half started the same, but foul trouble plagued the Tar Heels as the game wore on. Forward Isaiah Hicks picked up his fourth foul with 17:22 left and sat out the next 11 minutes. Berry sat out a couple of minutes after earning his fourth, and Kennedy Meeks fouled out with 4:57 remaining.
With North Carolina hesitant to foul, Kentucky took advantage. Monk continued his assault on the UNC defense, while first-year De'Andre Fox drove aggressively into the lane with little resistance.
In the final minutes, first-year Tony Bradley tied the game at the free-throw line and Jackson twice gave UNC the lead. But a 3-pointer from Monk with 22 seconds proved to be the game winner, as Isaiah Hicks couldn't convert on the ensuing possession and two Fox free throws sealed the deal in the final seconds.
Who stood out?
Malik Monk had the night of his life.
The first-year scored 47 points for Kentucky, posting the highest total of any player in Division-1 this season. The Wildcat guard scored at will, pulling up from beyond the arc and slicing through the foul-ridden UNC defense. Monk finished the game 18-of-28 from the floor — including 8-for-12 from the 3-point line — to guide Kentucky to victory.
Justin Jackson tried his hardest to combat Monk's output, though. The junior wing made his living from the free-throw line and the 3-point arc, scoring a career-high 34 points on 10-of-17 shooting. And in his first game back since spraining his left ankle in a Dec. 4 win over Radford, Joel Berry did not disappoint with 23 points of his own.
But in the end, the Tar Heels' collective effort weren't enough to match a monster effort from Monk.
When was it decided?
With 1:37 left, Jackson rose up for a 3-pointer to give UNC its first lead since the opening five minutes. On the next possession, Jackson flew through the lane and converted a layup and the foul.
But on the other end, Monk did what he had done all night — bury a 3-pointer in the defender's face to bury the Tar Heels' chances. Hicks couldn't make a contested jumper in North Carolina's best chance to complete the comeback.
Why does it matter?
The matchup with the Wildcats was arguably UNC's toughest test thus far and likely its biggest challenge until facing No. 5 Duke later in the season.
The loss gives the Tar Heels two nonconference defeats, matching their total from last year's runner-up squad. Granted, both losses come to current top-10 teams — No. 6 Kentucky and No. 9 Indiana — but this defeat adds more pressure for UNC to roll through a brutal conference slate if it hopes to contend for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Where do they play next?
The Tar Heels return home Wednesday for an 8 p.m. tip against Northern Iowa. North Carolina's first defeat last season came in a 71-67 road loss to the Panthers.
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