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Cats drop a 'coulda won' game at North Carolina

It took 39 minutes and 29 seconds for Julius Randle to get the look at the rim he wanted – a wide-open path and nobody between him and the iron. His ferocious dunk forced North Carolina to call a timeout, but by then, the Tar Heels were leading 76-71 and the result was imminent. Kentucky fell in Chapel Hill, 82-77.

North Carolina was a three-point favorite and yet, it’s fair to look at this one as a “should have won” instead of a “could have won.” The young Cats were plenty good enough to win in a place where veteran Kentucky teams have fallen. UNC was missing two key players and was riding a roller coaster that included losses to Belmont and UAB, as well as wins over Louisville and Michigan State. Wasted opportunity for UK – and a big one.

The Heels, like every other team the Wildcats have faced this season, tailored their defense around the talented UK post man, surrendering drive after drive to the Harrison twins and occasionally leaving James Young open as he roamed the three-point arc.

And the Harrisons made the most of their opportunities, working around foul problems to score 20 (Aaron) and 17, plus six assists (Andrew). Young poured in 16 before fouling out, joining Alex Poythress on the bench prematurely.

Randle would end up with just 11 points and five rebounds, but his lack of productivity is not why Kentucky lost Saturday night. The Cats turned it over 17 times to just nine for the ‘Heels, and compounded their problems by hitting just 29 of 43 free throws. Those ugly stats negated the hard work they did on the boards, outrebounding Carolina, 44-32.

Kentucky set the tone early in the game by out-hustling the home team. "I thought they fought really well. In the first half, I thought they were getting every loose ball," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. But because three UK players were saddled with two fouls, and Willie Cauley-Stein three, all John Calipari and his players could do was try to get to halftime as quickly as possible.

The teams traded blows in the second half, keeping it a one or two possession game, both teams piling up personal fouls, Randle still searching for a way to get himself in a position to attack the basket. On a couple of occasions, he settled for jump shots. And inside the six-minute mark, Andrew Harrison did the same.

Kentucky was down 64-58 when, instead of forcing UNC to play defense by working the ball into the post again, Harrison, feeling it, rose for a two-point jump shot and missed. Carolina rebounded and at the other end, James Michael McAdoo would hang and hit, giving the Tarheels an eight-point lead with five and a half minutes left.

North Carolina had taken control, although the Wildcats, inside the final two minutes, managed to make it a one-possession game. But Kentucky couldn’t get enough stops and the ‘Heels eventually pulled away.

It was another tough loss to a good team, and there will be more lessons learned, especially when the video splices are ready. And despite the loss, at least one Wildcat hasn’t lost any confidence. "We have so much talent on our team, and that's never the question when we lose,” said Andrew Harrison. “It's, can we take a punch?"

They responded to the roundhouse to the jaw from Baylor with a solid home-court performance in the victory over Boise State. And the effort was, indeed, there in the loss at UNC. But, says their coach, the Wildcats aren’t yet a team.

“What we are right now is, we're not a good basketball team, because all of our emotion is based on individual play," Calipari said.
And that was evident. At least during the first half, it seemed almost every foul called on the Cats was met by eyes bugging out of a head, outraised arms or (what seemed to be the favorite move), hands immediately holding the head.

There are precious few opportunities for the Wildcats to measure themselves against Top 15, or even Top 25 competition. Kentucky was 11th in the AP poll going into the Carolina game and with only Louisville, Tennessee and Florida on the schedule, may be looking (incredibly) at a three- or four-seed when tournament time rolls around, unless it starts hanging up more impressive wins.

Calipari wants change in his team, and that’s a big part of it. The word Rick Pitino often used to describe his 1996 championship team was, “professional,” and it had nothing to do with the fact that nine of them eventually would play in the NBA. Of course, it was a veteran team, the likes of which college basketball likely never will see again.

This team needs a similar does of professionalism. It doesn’t have as much time to grow up but still, it must. And it can happen in just a few months. It did during the 2010-11 season for the team led by Brandon Knight.

"We lost every road game and went to a Final Four,” Calipari reminds. “Will this team do it? If they change.”

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)


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