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.”
The Tar Heels’ struggles on Saturday could also be traced to the team’s lack of activity on the glass. Kentucky — who leads the nation with a 43.5 offensive rebound percentage — posted 17 offensive rebounds compared to UNC’s six, which led to 54 points in the paint and 15 second chance points.
“Rebounding is really not about technique, it's all about will and want to,” Davis said. “A missed shot is really a 50/50 ball, and it's your will and your toughness that will allow you to box out in the rebound, and we didn't do that.”
That will and toughness didn’t show in North Carolina from tap to buzzer. The players were in their heads and struggled with ball security, allowing 22 points off turnovers and 14 from fast breaks.
“We weren’t the aggressor,” RJ Davis said. “We didn’t show any energy or effort. So we’ll learn from this and we’ll grow.”
This game was important for both teams — for Kentucky to prove itself as a top-25 team and for North Carolina to suffer the consequences of doing the opposite.
For Davis — a coach who doesn't like to waste time teaching effort — this game was a wake-up call for his players. Even though it shouldn’t take a historic loss on national television to motivate a team, he hopes that the lessons learned from the lack of effort on Saturday will prepare the Tar Heels for early stages of conference play.
“I'll fight for them if we fight,” Davis said. “I told them ‘If you guys would just compete, it will change. It will change quickly.’”
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