LEXINGTON – As the buzzer sounded and the fans stood in amazement, still trying to wrap their collective heads around what they saw, my friend leaned to me.
“Don’t you just get the feeling we’ll see them again?”
I nodded. If the basketball Gods have any sense of the moment, any sense of what is wrong and right, then we’ll see Kentucky and North Carolina play again in about four months for the national championship. Unlike in football, where I find a rematch of Alabama and LSU a bit underwhelming, I would welcome a UK/UNC basketball national championship game rematch.
The effort of both teams Saturday was definitely memorable, and the last play of the game summed up the reason why UK won.
With 48 seconds left, Carolina guard Reggie Bullock drained a three with a defender in his face. And with a chance to help seize the game, UK freshman guard Marquis Teague stepped to the free throw line with a chance to push the lead back to three.
I had to be honest – I did not feel confident with him at the line. Gilchrist? Yes. Jones? Sure. Lamb? Definitely. Not Teague.
And in the scramble back to the other side, the UK defense was ready. More than 24,000 at Rupp Arena (8th largest crowd in school history in the building) stood cheering as the clock wound down, Kentucky up one. Carolina found Zeller in the paint, and immediately, the Cats collapsed on him, just as they’d done the entire second half. The ball pingponged out of Zeller’s hands, and floated into the waiting arms of UNC center John Henson.
Henson had been a beast all game long, and when the ball fell into arms, he loaded and popped.
I thought I’d be sick if Carolina won on a busted play like that.
But it didn’t happen that way. UK’s Anthony Davis, the No. 1 player in high school (and likely the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft) came out to defend Henson, his mirror image. Davis blocked the potential game-winning shot, grabbed the loose ball and threw it to Teague, who dribbled out the remaining five seconds of clock. (or maybe not – replays show he picked up his dribble and started running around with about a second left. Oh well).
UK won, 73-72. It was difficult. It wasn’t always pretty. But UK survived. Somehow.
And the Rupp crowd went bonkers. I thought they were all going to run out on the court. Of course I was going bonkers too.
From tip to the ending block, this was an amazing college basketball environment for early December.
In the first half, it looked as though Carolina was definitely the better team. UK really struggled to match their toughness and hustle, and as I predicted, UNC knew more of their offense and was able to execute it. Still, they were only up 5 at the half – and star Harrison Barnes got 3 fouls in the first half. Terrence Jones kept UK in it with 14 points. Darius Miller again provided he steady hand and instant offense and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a man-kid-Gilchrist, with 8 points and 7 rebounds.
I felt pretty good for UK, actually. Carolina was playing as good as it could play (they hit six of nine threes), and they were only up 5 points. That was it. Could they keep it up? I felt sure UK would play better. Could UNC match the effort?
Yes they could. UNC came out and answered every bucket when UK put together its patented open-the-second-half run. Slowly though, Kentucky started to warm up. Doron Lamb got all 14 of his points in the second half, including two huge threes that kept the score just out of Carolina’s reach.
In terms of excitement, drama, back-and-forth lead changes and two programs really just playing superb and showcasing amazing talent, this game was amazing. Glad UK made it out with a hard-fought win. It took guts and it was impressive to see a young team do it.
– Even 25 min. before the Carolina game, Rupp was rockin’. John Wall was in the house, fraternizing with both UK and UNC players. Celebrities from Ashley Judd to Rasheed Wallace were there (I wonder if they hang out?) But the energy was just electric. The Carolina players looked loose and were joking around during the shootaround. They did not look nervous at all – and played that way.
– Big, big congrats to UofL to the great start they’ve had to their young season. Their victory at Butler did not wow me, but their two-point win in overtime over Vandy was legit because both teams were missing important players. When the Cards were down 5 in OT I thought they were toast. Credit Kyle Kuric with a big 3 and of course Siva with his patented go to the rack layup for the win. Big win for the Cards.
– Ditto that for Xavier. The Muskies may have their most legit shot to make it to the Final Four in a long while. I like this team a lot, and would not be surprised to see them in New Orleans. Their comeback from 19 down to win over Purdue was inspired – and Tu Holloway’s three threes in the last 90 seconds? SICK!
– That said, no team has looked better than Ohio State when they dismantled Duke. I still think Carolina or Kentucky may be the most talented team – but OSU could be the No. 1 team. Their only issue may be depth. I count four consistent players for the Buckeyes. Can that win a title? Maybe.
– One of my more disappointing teams early in the season? Your Cincinnati Bearcats. How do they lose to Presbyterian AND Marshall in the non-conference? I like Mick Cronin a lot, but here’s a newsflash that he already knows: the road ain’t getting easier. Syracuse is good. Louisville is too. And UConn, West Virginia, Pitt, Georgetown and Nova aren’t bad. UC needs to get their act together. They’re too good to be underachieving. This team should be a top 15 club.
– And a personal disappointment has to be called out here: Western Kentucky is 2-6 this season, while rival Murray St flourishes. That’s unacceptable. WKU has brought in good players, but the momentum Darin Horn built is gone under Ken McDonald. Maybe if Horn is ousted at South Carolina, he’ll come back to WKU. The Toppers should take him in a heartbeat.
Go Big Blue!