LAS VEGAS — If Kentucky basketball badly needed a nail-biter, as coach John Calipari kept saying, its 103-100 win over North Carolina on Saturday signified a major breakthrough for these young Wildcats.
The Wildcats’ first nine wins had come by an average margin of 29 points and their lone loss was not nearly as close as the 97-92 final score against UCLA. The Bruins led by 11 with 30 seconds to go before Kentucky’s frantic last gasp.
“They killed us,” Calipari said. “This game was what a game should be: They make plays, you better make one. They miss a shot, you better come up with one. And you can’t panic.”
The sixth-ranked Cats (10-1) never did. Not when a double-digit lead in the second half evaporated. Not when the margin was a single bucket either way for the final 3:13. Not when the seventh-ranked Tar Heels (10-2) took the lead twice in the final 97 seconds of a brilliant, breathless ballgame.
“It was a great college game,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It was a bunch of kids out there rising to the occasion and making special plays under pressure. I love up-and-down basketball. I’ve always felt like that’s the way I wanted to play 100 years ago and I want to coach that way. I think fans enjoy that. You let players make plays.”
And did they ever.
The Tar Heels’ Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson scored 23 and 34 points, respectively, while De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk poured in 24 and 47 for the Wildcats. The thing is, Berry and Jackson are juniors; Fox and Monk are freshmen.
Kentucky started four rookies Saturday, while UNC started a sophomore, two juniors and two seniors. Those Tar Heels were part of a run to the NCAA title game last season, while most of those Wildcats were in high school.
Calipari kept saying his team needed a close game to find out who he could count on in tense, decisive moments — and now he knows.
“Really happy for the guys because of their will to win,” the coach tweeted Sunday. “It looked like we had won the game, then it looked like we had lost the game, and then our guys figured out how to win the game.”
Monk hit two clutch 3-pointers in the final two minutes, while fellow freshman Wenyen Gabriel atoned for a costly late turnover by securing a critical defensive rebound with 9 seconds remaining, which led to Fox’s two high-pressure free throws with three ticks to go.
“Everyone says we’re young, but we came out and beat a top-5 team in the country,” Fox said. “Those are the games you live for. We want to play close games. Honestly, for me, close games are a lot more fun than blowouts.”
There are still some important things for Kentucky to shore up, mainly on defense, where the Wildcats have given up 70-plus points five times already and allowed the Tar Heels to shoot 53 percent on the way to triple digits Saturday. Remember when Calipari said this might be his best defensive team ever? “What was I smoking,” he joked after UK had no answers for Berry or Jackson.
But a breakneck game like that was good for everyone involved — and for the sport at large.
“If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you’re going to start liking basketball,” Calipari said. “Like, ‘Wow, if that’s what it is, I’m going to watch that.’”
When it was over, Kentucky’s coach looked energized. North Carolina’s looked exhausted. Both had an appreciation for what just happened, but only one of them got to leave Las Vegas more sure of his team than ever.
“The guy that wins, he feels great,” Williams said. “John, right now, could run a marathon, and I can barely get up out of the dadgum chair.”