Saturday finally brought a competitive game worthy of the rivalry--and as Roy Williams properly noted, it was a "great college basketball game." But that fact isn't going to bring too much cheer to Chapel Hill this week as the Tar Heels and their fans reflect on a game that offered both inspiring and infuriating moments along the way to an ultimately disappointing outcome.
The inspiration came from the most unexpected of sources: who expects Byron Sanders to track down a loose ball at midcourt, find his way to the basket off his own dribble, draw a foul, and then hit two free throws? That play by the Mississippi sophomore helped get Carolina off the deck after a horrid beginning by the starters that featured five turnovers (three, surprisingly, from Raymond Felton) in the opening four minutes.
Roy Williams first sent three subs to the scorer's table at the 16:06 mark, then decided to toss in Reyshawn Terry and Jesse Holley as well to let all five starters sit and watch. "I think that was good, because we came out lackadaisical, and the Kentucky guys came out real scrappy," noted Melvin Scott, one of the few Tar Heels in a talkative mood after the game. "We sat over there and watched those guys, walk-ons who don't even have scholarships, defend, get steals, and do things we're supposed to do. I think Coach Williams did a good job with that."
Indeed, Carolina outscored Kentucky 24-8 over the last 14 minutes of the first half, with the original starters--highlighted by Scott's hot hand--playing much better, especially on defense. The Wildcats, still showing signs of a hangover from a deflating loss to Pitino's Louisville last week, helped matters with cold shooting of their own. Even so, most Carolina fans would have gaped in amazement at being offered an eight point halftime lead despite Jawad Williams, Rashad McCants, and Sean May combining for just 3-13 shooting.
Unfortunately--and here comes the infuriating part--the day never got much better for the Tar Heels' three leading scorers, and to make matters worse Scott's hot hand turned into a bandaged one after picking up a cut. (Scott attempted just one three pointer in the 2nd half after draining 3 out of 5 in the 1st half.)
And while it would be misleading to point to Rashad McCants as the only player who struggled--he was not--this team is not good enough to overcome unproductive nights from the talented sophomore. After a masterful performance against Coastal Carolina Tuesday, McCants was stymied by Kentucky from the get-go, looking indecisive and uncomfortable on his drives to the basket and not even close on his three-point shooting.
Raymond Felton wisely looked to set McCants up for an easier basket early in the second half, and his fine entry bounce pass produced immediate dividends, leading not only to a McCants basket but also a tremendous blocked shot by the Asheville native on Chuck Hayes on the following play. That block triggered a fast break basket for Scott and a 34-26 lead. But it all came unraveled three minutes later when McCants failed to protect the ball after grabbing an offensive rebound, allowing the Wildcats to strip the ball for a turnover. At that point Roy Williams, who could be seen emphasizing being strong with the ball in timeouts earlier in the game, lost his patience and yanked McCants for the next eight minutes of game time.
McCants was not the sole target of Williams' frustration Saturday however, as Jawad Williams, Sean May, and Raymond Felton also spent time on the bench during a remarkable three-minute span in which Damien Price, Terry, and Sanders all featured. While Williams later admitted that the substitutions were rooted more in frustration than strategy, that group held Kentucky to a single free throw and used Terry's first career 3-pointer to keep the Heels within a basket when the starters re-entered with 5 minutes to play.
Even a half decent offensive performance over those last 5 minutes from the starters would likely have been enough to steal a win, but Carolina never regained its rhythm or confidence. Felton finally hit a clutch 3 to break a six minute-plus drought, and Sean May came ever so close to controlling his block of Gerald Fitch with 33 seconds to play and giving Carolina a chance to win. Instead, Kentucky retained possession and Fitch hit one of the shots of the season to put this one away.
Much will be made of the frustrated tone of Roy Williams' postgame comments, and while he surely meant what he said in describing this team as his biggest coaching challenge in years, fans should also keep this quote in mind: "For us to cut it to one and have a chance, except for them to hit a 30-foot shot, gives me some hope, I guess, and makes me very proud of my team."
The reality is that while this is a talented team with enormous potential, it is still a very young one and has only a very limited resume of accomplishment so far. Carolina did not look against Kentucky--or against UNC-W for that matter--like a team prepared to make an early run to the top of the ACC standings. As Scott stressed after the game, "We need to learn to win....once we really decide, 'okay, I'm going to do this for the good of the team, I'm going to pass up this shot, I'm going to stop this guy for the team,' then we'll be great. We'll win a lot--all--of these close games. All of them. Until we get that, we'll never see how great this team can be."
Scott, for one, is on the right track with his diagnosis, but the more important observation may be Roy Williams': "It's not supposed to be easy." Not in Rupp Arena, and not in the ACC.
This North Carolina team still has work to do to become a truly outstanding team: the proper response to that fact is not despair or creeping defeatism, but rolling up the sleeves and getting to work.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at firstname.lastname@example.org.