The Kentucky freshman bounced back from a bout with dehydration and a queasy encounter with an IV drip to finish with 16 points—including the clinching free throws with 4.3 seconds left—to lift the No. 5 Wildcats to a 68-66 victory over the 10th-ranked Tar Heels on Saturday.
Wall dominated at times while helping the Wildcats (8-0) build a 19-point first-half lead,then spent 20 anxious minutes in the training room after cramping up. It took a couple of bottles of Gatorade and a bit of teeth grinding by Wall to get back on the floor.
"I hate needles, I was back there having a fit," Wall said.
So were his teammates, who almost let a big lead against the defending national champions get away in front of the largest crowd in Rupp Arena history.
Kentucky inched closer to becoming the first program to reach 2,000 victories thanks to some clutch free throw shooting by Wall and fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe. The duo combined to make 5 of 6 in the final 30 seconds after the Tar Heels pulled within 63-61.
"You guys are going to say I'm crazy, but I'm happy with the way it played out," said coach John Calipari. "We let the other team come at us. We gave up way too many (3s) but I'm proud of my guys. We did what we needed to do. We had just enough."
The win pushed Kentucky's victory total to 1,996, just head of North Carolina's 1,991. Not that the Wildcats were concerned with history.
For a team whose motto is "envy our past, fear our future," the first signature win of Calipari's tenure proved his rebuilding job is well ahead of schedule. "I hope it just gives people some respect for us that we're a pretty good team," Wall said. "We did what we were supposed to, come out with a win against a great team."
Consider North Carolina coach Roy Williams convinced, particularly after the Wildcats took control with an explosive 28-2 run in the first half.
"You've got to give them congratulations, they really kicked our butts," Williams said. "They just ran us out of the gym." The Wildcats snapped a five-game losing streak to the Tar Heels. Forward Patrick Patterson provided some of the grit, finishing with 19 points and seven rebounds to help Kentucky off to its best start since 1992-93, when the Wildcats won their first 11 games.
"The definition of this team is that we are tough down the stretch," Patterson said. "I still feel we have a long way to go."
So do the Tar Heels.
"We're North Carolina and we can talk all we want about what we're going to do, but when we're out there on the court we have to take care of business," said point guard Larry Drew.
The Tar Heels couldn't quite do it, something Williams attributed to his team's inability to stay composed during Kentucky's decisive run.
"We both showed our inexperience," Williams said. "We showed it in the first half and I think they showed it a little bit in the second half."
After Thompson's jumper from the corner pulled North Carolina within 63-61, Bledsoe shook off several late-game miscues to knock down a pair of free throws. After Graves missed a 3-pointer and the rebound bounced out off bounds, Bledsoe made one of two to make it 66-61.
"I was kind of worked up too much early in the game, but as the game wore on I let the game come to me," Bledsoe said.
A tip-in by Thompson pulled Carolina to 66-63, but Wall finished his breakout performance by calmly sinking two free throws with 4.3 seconds left. Graves hit a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer, and by then the Wildcats bench had poured onto the floor to celebrate.
Calipari said before the game he was anxious to see how his team responded when it got "punched in the mouth," and still refused to say college basketball's winningest program is back.
"We had 21 turnovers, a couple of times we had guys not knowing what they were supposed to do," Calipari said. "Our execution really stinks right now."
Maybe, but Kentucky had an answer when things got tight: Give the ball to Wall. He dazzled the NBA scouts in attendance with the kind of playmaking ability that will likely make him a lottery pick next spring if he chooses to leave. Wall finished with seven assists, five rebounds and a handful of spectacular plays.
"We talked about slowing him down," Williams said. "Boy, we didn't do that."
The win provided redemption of sorts for Wall, a native of Raleigh, N.C., who grew up wanting to play for the Tar Heels. Though North Carolina pursued him throughout high school, the Tar Heels never offered him a scholarship.
It's something Wall said he's over, but Bledsoe knew better after listening to his roommate.
"That's all he talked about when we'd go back to the room," Bledsoe said of the days leading up to the game. "John wanted this game real bad."