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By: Brian Melton
Very seldom do the most anticipated and publicized games of the season live up to all the hype that the fans and media create before the opening tip. See the absolute dismantling of Duke by Ohio State last week as exhibit A.
And no matter how much we all enjoyed watching the Blue Devils get blown out, there is still disappointment that it wasn’t a better game. That’s what made Saturday’s epic tilt between two of the most storied programs in college basketball even better. And of course it didn’t hurt that the right team won.
In front of the largest crowd in Rupp Arena’s storied history, the Cats and Tar Heels faced off for the third time in the last year. Kentucky ran out to a quick 9-3 lead before it started raining threes for Carolina, which was able to build, at its largest, a nine point lead in the first half. UK managed to keep the game close despite shooting only 36% from the field in the first half, trailing 43-38 at the break.
Kentucky raced out of halftime, tying the score at 45 only two minutes in, when Anthony Davis was fouled while throwing down an alley-oop dunk. Unfortunately the Heels continued their torrid shooting from downtown to keep the Cats from taking the lead until the 7:00 mark when Davis’ quick jumper finally dropped through the bucket.
UK maintained a narrow lead and with 21 seconds to go Carolina had the ball, trailing by a single point, hoping to hand Calipari his first home loss as Kentucky’s coach. Fortunately Anthony Davis had his back in coming up with “The Block Heard Round the Bluegrass”. UNC got the ball down on the block to Tyler Zeller, who in making his move toward the basket lost control of the ball which magically landed in the hands of a wide open John Henson.
As the dagger in the heart of all Cat fans is about to leave his hands, Davis and his 27 foot long arms comes to the rescue in blocking the shot and corralling the loose ball. Game over. Kentucky wins 73-72.
The most impressive thing was the ability of such a young team to play together in such a big game with every player making a contribution. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist rediscovered his ability to get the rim, leading the way with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and was one of four Wildcats scoring in double figures. Terrence Jones scored all of his 14 points in the first half when the team was struggling to put points on the board. Doron Lamb hit two huge three pointers to give the Cats some breathing room and Darius Miller made several clutch baskets down the stretch.
Kyle Wiltjer only logged five minutes in the contest, but managed to score a big basket and played harassing defense in the post. And when Davis was getting pushed around in the paint at times, Eloy Vargas came in and provided bulk down low. Every player provided exactly what was needed at the time.
One concerning area was the continued shaky play of point guard Marquis Teague. His miss of the front end of the one and one at the end of the game was bad, but more concerning was that the team almost seemed to perform better when he was out of the game in the second half. Point guard is both the most difficult and important position on the court and right now Teague seems to be indecisive on the court. Calipari continues to preach patience as all of his predecessors at the point have also struggled at times early in the season.
Next up for the Cats is a trip to Bloomington, Indiana to take on the undefeated Hoosiers who are looking for their first big time win for Coach Tom Crean and their recently struggling basketball program. As Calipari always says, Kentucky is everyone’s Super Bowl and it will be very interesting to see how this team handles its first true road game of the season.