After the buzzer finalized the 29-point, 98-69 loss to No. 21 Kentucky Saturday — the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s largest margin of defeat since 2012 — UNC head coach Hubert Davis walked over to Kentucky head coach John Calipari, shook his hand and thanked him.
“I said, ‘I appreciate that you guys played this well, because you put us in a position to be the team that we need to be,’” Davis said. “And I said, ‘I appreciate that.’”
When the Tar Heels boarded their plane to fly to Las Vegas for the CBS Sports Classic, they were slated to play No. 4 UCLA, but last-minute game cancellations set up a familiar battle of blue bloods in T-Mobile Arena. The Tar Heels were coming off a five-game winning streak, which included a big win against a ranked Michigan team, and held a 25-16 all-time record against the No. 21 Wildcats.
Coming off a shocking low-scoring loss to unranked Notre Dame the week prior, Calipari was glad to face a strong opponent like UNC to figure out what his team was made of. While watching film in preparation, Calipari found the key to taking down the ACC giant.
“There are two foremen, 13 (Dawson Garcia) and 45, (Brady) Manek, and they are as good as shooting big men as there are,” Calipari said. “So, we had to say, ‘Well, what do you want to give up?’ You pick your poison. And we didn't want those two.”
Rather than allowing the Tar Heel bigs to dominate the game, Calipari took his chances on blitzing UNC’s playmakers, namely sophomore guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis.
Going into the game, North Carolina was a known threat from outside the arc, ranking seventh in the nation in three-point percentage at 40.9 percent. Calipari knew when he saw the guards dance on the perimeter that they would bury the ball, so he focused his defenders on suffocating the shooters.
The strategy worked. In the first half, the Tar Heels shot 37 percent from the field and went 0-6 from deep, leading to an early 18-point deficit.
“Right away, they stunned us,” junior forward Armando Bacot said. “They hit us with a knockout punch early in the game and we just never recovered.”