The North Carolina men’s basketball team once again faced off against a top-25 opponent, leaving head coach Hubert Davis feeling “shocked” about his team’s seeming lack of effort once more.
If there was one thing that best encapsulated the Tar Heels’ lackadaisical performance in their 98-69 loss to No. 21 Kentucky, it was the Wildcats’ +18 rebounding margin.
North Carolina is traditionally not one to get beaten on the glass, but Kentucky proved on Saturday why it's one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. The Wildcats consistently out-jumped, out-ran and out-hustled the Tar Heels from the tip.
“Rebounding is really not about technique, whether you're going off their offensive glass or you're boxing out, it's all about will and want to, it's about toughness,” Davis said. “(Kentucky) played harder than us. And if you want to compare it to Tennessee, from my perspective, that's the part that I was shocked by.”
Ten minutes into the game, Kentucky led 23-8 and had seven offensive boards compared to UNC’s six total rebounds.
“Right away, they stunned us,” junior forward Armando Bacot said. “They hit us with a knockout punch and we just never recovered.”
The Tar Heels didn’t just give the Wildcats second chances — at times, they allowed three or four looks at the basket in a single defensive stand. The most egregious example came with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half, when UNC gave up three offensive rebounds in a span of 21 seconds.
After a shot from Sahvir Wheeler bounced off the rim, Kentucky’s Lance Ware beat sophomore forward Dawson Garcia to the board, swatting it out to teammate Keion Brooks at the top of the key. Brooks missed an open midrange jumper, but Ware was there again to grab the rebound over Garcia’s head.
The ball then found its way to TyTy Washington who missed a floater attempt, grabbed his own rebound and finally put the ball through the net to put the Wildcats up 31-15.
UNC eventually found some life in the final five minutes of the first half, cutting an 18-point deficit down to 11 by the end of the period, but Kentucky came roaring back after the break.
“I told (the team), ‘if you guys would just compete it will change — it will change quickly,’” Davis said. “I really felt like in the second half we would continue to play that way. We just didn't.”
The Tar Heels seemed less and less willing to fight as the second half droned on. Conversely, Kentucky never let up on the intensity, even when leading rebounder Oscar Tshiebwe was limited by foul trouble.
Up 19 points, with twelve minutes left to go in the game, the five-foot-nine Wheeler beat the boxout by Garcia and snatched an offensive rebound off a missed free throw attempt, passing it out to Kellan Grady for an open three. Wheeler ended the game with a team-high 26 points, 8 assists and three rebounds – two offensive – yet he protested when Kentucky head coach John Calipari subbed him out with less than a minute remaining in the contest.
In many ways, it seems like the Tar Heels regressed after rattling off five-straight wins following the 89-72 loss to Tennessee at the Mohegan Sun in November. Over the course of that win streak, the Tar Heels held its opponents to an average of 58 points and boasted an average rebounding margin of +16. None of what led UNC to put up those numbers shined against Kentucky.
The Tar Heels will return to action against Appalachian State on Dec. 21 in their final non-conference game before ACC play ramps up. If there’s one lesson the team can take away from its trip to Las Vegas, it’s that there’s no on-off switch for effort.
“(This game) shows that we can't take any nights off,” sophomore guard RJ Davis said. “We have to be a high energy, aggressive team every time we step on the floor. I mean, this one is definitely embarrassing.”
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