Tar Heels scrap past Wildcats in battle of blue bloods
In a battle between two of college basketball’s most identifiable programs, North Carolina showed another side Saturday afternoon.
The 18th-ranked Tar Heels had defense, balanced contributions and again survived bad shooting at the free throw line. They scrapped past No. 11 Kentucky, 82-77, in front of a loud sellout crowd of 21,750 in the Smith Center and, for the most part, maintained their mysterious mark.
Beaten by unheralded Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham so far, the Tar Heels played this marquee matchup of 2,000-win programs looking like the team that defeated then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Louisville in a 10-day stretch. North Carolina (7-2) was whipped on the boards in the first half, yet continued to find avenues to the rim and challenged the more physical Wildcats (8-3).
“We had to have mental toughness the whole game, regardless of how many people are in the stands,” said James Michael McAdoo. “We have to show up from the tip.”
They had that, even if they didn’t look imposing in many other ways.
“We don’t even look good walking through an airport,” head coach Roy Williams deadpanned.
Still, the Tar Heels crafted their talents into a sum greater than its parts.
“We didn’t expect it to be pretty,” said Marcus Paige, who scored 21 of his 23 points after intermission.
“They rebound really hard. Their best offense is to get to the boards. Our best offense is to get to the boards, too.”
From the final tie at 46 with more than 13 minutes to play, five different players scored the Tar Heels’ next five baskets. The lead grew to six, then was its highest yet, 62-54, with 6:53 to go as fourth fouls began to mount.
Kentucky, youthful as always under head coach John Calipari, lacked cohesiveness down the stretch. And the Wildcats’ Julius Randle, averaging 17.8 points per game, was stymied by the defense of McAdoo and a helper throughout.
Randle had three shots at halftime and only six as the game’s final eight minutes began. He finished 3-for-9 scoring 11 points.
“McAdoo made a statement,” Calipari said.
“He’s a good player,” McAdoo said of Randle. “I knew it would be a huge task. I thought we did a good job attacking him on offense and on the defensive end.
“I felt we were able to take him out of his comfort zone.”
In addition to Paige’s 23 points, McAdoo scored 20 and J.P. Tokoto 15. Aaron Harrison led Kentucky with 20 points, Andrew Harrison scored 17 and James Young 16. The Wildcats’ 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein had a game-high 12 rebounds helping a 44-32 advantage.
Paige was 10-for-10 at the foul line. Players for both teams not named Paige were a woeful 42 of 78, even with Kentucky fouling to send North Carolina to the line in the final minute.
Williams lamented his team getting boxed out on free throws and not being esthetically pleasing. But he lauded Paige as “sensational” and commended his team for getting to the rim and shooting nearly 57 percent from the floor in the second half.
Calipari bemoaned his team’s effort and togetherness at clutch time, saying they broke down.
“A lot of it comes down to hustle plays,” Paige said.
In reflecting on the different ways the Tar Heels have defeated three top flight programs, McAdoo shrugged and said, “That’s just North Carolina basketball.”
If nothing else, one consistent identity.
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