After beating Gonzaga, UNC head coach Roy Williams said his team’s trouble with turnovers was “the biggest negative of the game no question.” Unfortunately for Williams, the Tar Heels picked up where they left off in that regard. UNC gave the ball away three times in the opening 1:28 of the game and quickly fell behind 8-4.
Soon after, UNC started to force some turnovers itself on the other end of the court and settled into the game. When starting forward Garrison Brooks picked up a pair of early fouls, fellow sophomore big man Sterling Manley spelled him and quickly made an impact, grabbing an offensive rebound and getting a put-back to give UNC its first lead of the game, 13-12, just under five minutes into the action.
But the Tar Heels never led by more than three in the first half. Defensively, UNC struggled with Travis, the athletic forward who at times beat defenders off the dribble and knew what to do when he caught the ball in the post by either finishing or earning a trip to the free-throw line.
A former standout at Stanford, Travis went for 16 points and shot 5-of-7 from the field and 5-of-8 at the charity stripe before the break. UNC forward Luke Maye often had to guard Travis, and at the other end of the floor, Maye started out just 1-of-4 from the field.
Maye started to see his shot fall as time went on, however, and led UNC with nine points at the half. A 3-pointer by Maye brought UNC within three points of Kentucky with just over seven minutes left in the first half, but Kentucky went on a 14-8 run into halftime to lead 40-31.
The Tar Heels’ 31 points were the fewest they scored in a half the season, and much of that had to with Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans, who provided pressure on the perimeter and had three steals before halftime.
Out of the break, things didn’t look better immediately for UNC. Kentucky built its lead to 12 and Travis got help offensively from Tyler Herro and Johnson, who combined for 38 points.
But Maye and guard Cameron Johnson, two of UNC’s biggest offensive threats, kept UNC in the game with their outside shooting, with the two combining to make four 3-pointers after halftime.
The Tar Heels reduced Kentucky’s lead to four points at one point early on in the second half. But each time UNC made a charge, Kentucky had an answer.
After a pair of free throws by Kenny Williams, UNC trailed by only six with with 6:47 remaining. But Kentucky immediately answered with a 3-pointer by forward P.J. Washington and a layup by Hagans to quickly rebuild its advantage to 11.
Even though UNC forced Kentucky into making 18 turnovers, the Wildcats made up fortheir errors by connecting on nine 3-pointers and forcing the Tar Heels into 16 turnovers of their own.
With less than a minute remaining, Seventh Woods brought UNC within six with two free throws, and UNC had a chance to make it a one-score game after Kentucky’s Herro missed the front end of a one-and-one. However, a tough 3-pointer by Maye was off target and Kentucky held on.
Who stood out?
For UNC, Maye and Johnson were solid. The two combined for 33 points and eachplayer shot 6-of-12 from the field. Off the bench, point guard Seventh Woods provided seven points and three assists.
But the lack of help Maye and Johnson received offensively was the story of the day for the Tar Heels.
Brooks, because of foul trouble, couldn’t make a big impact on the game, and first-years Coby White and Nassir Little were inefficient. White connected on just 3-of-11 shots from the field and had three turnovers and two assists. Little, meanwhile, struggled to create his shot and only had four points on eight shots.
When was it decided?
Kentucky couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief until Maye’s 3-pointer with UNC down six couldn’t fall with 27 seconds left.
Why does it matter?
The loss slows down the momentum UNC built by defeating Gonzaga soundly, and serves as a reminder that this year’s Tar Heels have lacked consistency up to this point.
UNC’s 16 turnovers showed that UNC is still trying to find a way to take care of the basketball, and Williams’ team is still searching for a dependable cast of scorers outside of Maye and Johnson.
UNC’s five offensive rebounds illustrate that the way the Tar Heels crashed the boards against Gonzaga may not be reproducible night in and night out.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels return to the Smith Center to take on Davidson on Dec. 29 in their final game of 2018. UNC defeated Davidson, 85-75, last season at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. Davidson is 9-3 and most recently defeated Central Pennsylvania on Saturday, 88-54.