Kentucky Wildcats, North Carolina Tar Heels square off in high-stakes rematch of epic December game

Both UK, UNC believe they have improved since 103-100 game in Las Vegas.

MEMPHIS -- When Kentucky and North Carolina last faced each other in December, the teams waged what might have been college basketball's game of the year.

The Wildcats' Malik Monk exploded for 47 points and the Tar Heels' Justin Jackson countered with 34 as the two heavyweight programs matched each other blow for blow, fittingly, in Las Vegas. 

Kentucky emerged with a 103-100 victory, leaving hoops media and fans alike to start thinking about a potential rematch in the NCAA Tournament.

They got their wish.

The top two seeds in the South Region will square off once again on Sunday at FedExForum with a trip to the Final Four hanging in the balance. 

Leading up to the rematch, however, neither team expects a repeat of what went down in the desert. Kentucky shot 54.1 percent from the field and knocked down 10 of 18 from beyond the arc. North Carolina shot 53 percent from the field and made nine of its 17 treys.

In other words, with two coaches who have been preaching defense ever since that matchup, what happened in Vegas will likely stay in Vegas. 

"All I remember is they scored 100 on us," UK coach John Calipari said on Saturday, referencing a figure that likely still eats away at his soul. 

For Calipari, whose team has improved dramatically on the defensive end of the floor and bought into his desire to grind opponents down, winning a game with both teams in triple figures is a hollow victory. And he knows the Cats likely cannot advance on Sunday if it happens again.

While Monk and Fox (who also had a huge game 24 points and 10 assists in the first matchup) may entertain visions of lighting up the scoreboard again, one of Kentucky's veterans seemed to understand it will be a totally different style of play on Sunday.

"It will probably be a little different this time around," UK senior forward Derek Willis said. "But we'll be prepared, and coaches do a real good job with that, and we're excited to play."

Kentucky demonstrated its defensive improvement on Friday night in an 86-75 win over UCLA, controlling tempo and holding the Bruins to 22 fewer points than they posted in a December win at Rupp Arena. 

North Carolina coach Roy Williams suggested the Cats may have narrowed the experience advantage the Tar Heels held earlier this season. The first time around, UK was facing a UNC squad that had several members back from the 2016 national championship game.

"I think they really have improved," he said. "With the freshmen, with De'Aaron and Bam (Adebayo) and Malik, those guys have gotten more used to what college basketball is all about."

Monk agreed. "I don't think we're freshmen anymore. You can't use that term anymore."

But UNC is different as well, Calipari countered.

"We know we've done it once," the UK boss said, "but the reality of it is that game was so long ago. I don't think (Theo) Pinson played.... I think Joel (Berry) was hurt. When I watched the tape, it's like, 'Ooh, my gosh.' Both teams are better; let me say that."

One edge the Heels may have in a rematch is motivation. It worked in UK's favor on Friday night against UCLA.

"If somebody beats you, you want to have a chance to play them again," Williams said. "It doesn't mean you're going to beat them the next time, but you do have that.  And because we're not in the same league, we knew that if we played them again that it would have to be in the NCAATournament, so you would hope it is as far down the line as you possibly could."

Kentucky's Isaiah Briscoe said he used a bit of motivation in the first matchup. "Everybody thought we were going to lose because they were veterans and we were the younger team, and we just came out, fought, played together, and just played Kentucky basketball, and we came out to win."

The Cats and Heels will tip off at 5:05 p.m. ET for the right to go to Phoenix. It will mark only the fourth time in their prestigious history that the two programs have met in the tournament with all of the previous meetings coming at this stage in the bracket. North Carolina won in the 1977 East Regional final and the 1995 Southeast Regional final, while Kentucky won in the 2011 East Regional final.

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