By R.L. Bynum
Carolina’s regression Saturday in Las Vegas produced the sort of poor defense, shooting and energy that the Tar Heels thought they cleaned up after the nightmare loss to Tennessee.
Those frustrations were back with Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler driving to the basket on a porous UNC defense at will in the No. 21 Wildcats’ decisive 98–69 victory in the CBS Sports Classic to end the Heels’ five-game win streak.
“We didn’t play like I thought we were going to play,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “I really believed that our energy and effort would be there and it just wasn’t.”
It was UNC’s largest margin of defeat since falling at Florida State 90–57 on Jan. 14, 2012, and Kentucky’s largest win over Carolina since an 83–44 home win on Jan. 9, 1950.
Armando Bacot did what he could offensively to keep Carolina (8–3) in the game. But the combination of Wheeler’s driving ability from the outside (26 points and eight assists) and center Oscar Tshiebwe’s punch inside (16 points, 12 rebounds) was more than the Tar Heels could handle. Kellan Grady added 18 points on five 3-pointers.
“Wheeler was the best player out there on the floor,” Davis said of the guard who was 0 of 5 from the floor in Kentucky’s loss at Notre Dame seven days earlier. “We didn’t have anybody that could guard him. He was just able to get anywhere he wanted to go.”
Bacot said that UNC knew that Kentucky would challenge the Tar Heels with drives to the basket.
“Going into the game, we knew that’s what they were going to do,” Bacot said. “They did everything that the coaches told us they would do. We just didn’t execute the game plan.”
It was the first win over a Power 5 team this season for the Wildcats (8–2), who lost to No. 2 Duke and the Irish. Kentucky has won six of the last nine games with Carolina and Coach John Calipari is 8–4 against the Tar Heels.
“It puts us in a humble position to move forward to be the team that I know that we can be,” Davis said.
The effort and energy weren’t there on either end of the court, whether it was getting back on defense, working through a screen or boxing out under the boards.
Davis had a hard time understanding the effort he got from his team.
“One of the things that I’ve talked to them about a number of times is what you are required to do every day is to show up and do your job and not only show up and do your job, but you have to do it to the best of your ability,” Davis said. “And, so, I don’t understand that. I don’t understand not fully being invested, not having a toughness and a will and a want to to play as hard as you can. It’s hard to understand and it’s hard to coach. I’m a basketball coach. I’m not an effort coach.”
Bacot finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds for his seventh double-double this season and 25th of his career. But guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis combined to go 5 of 16 from the floor after going 5 of 18 in Tuesday’s win over Furman. Davis was the only other Tar Heel to score in double figures with 10 points.
“On defense, we knew they’d be aggressive and try to get us out of our sets,” Bacot said. “It’s tough to score the ball and get in our sets when we’re catching the ball far out and just not in the right spots.”
Carolina made only 1 of 13 3-point attempts (7.7%) and shot 43.4% from the floor overall. It was the first time with only one 3-pointer for UNC since going 1 of 9 in a 69–67 loss to Texas on Dec. 2, 2020. It was the worst perimeter shooting since the Tar Heels were 1 of 16 from 3-point range in a 74–57 loss at Wake Forest on Feb. 11, 2020.
Meanwhile, Kentucky shot 66.7% in the second half (54.2% for the game), shot 53.3% from 3-point range and scored an eye-popping 1.40 points per possession.
“In the first 15 minutes of the first half and in the second half, we just didn’t execute our game plan,” RJ Davis said. “We weren’t the aggressor. We didn’t show any energy or effort. So, we’ll learn from this.”
The Wildcats outrebounded UNC 44–26 as the Tar Heels only rebounded 18.2% of their misses. It was Carolina’s largest rebounding deficit since Texas outrebounded the Tar Heels 60–41 on Dec. 19, 2009.
“We talked about their length and athleticism,” Hubert Davis said. “We said that we’ve got to be the tougher team even though they’re longer and more athletic; it doesn’t matter. We have to be the tougher team. We weren’t the tougher team.”
Kentucky took a 19–6 lead with 10 consecutive points when UNC went on a scoring drought for 3 minutes and 24 seconds and missed seven straight shots.
“They stunned us,” Bacot said. “They hit us with a knockout punch early in the game and we just never recovered.”
The Wildcats were outrebounding UNC 16–4 before Tshiebwe, the nation’s leading rebounder, went to the bench with two fouls with 12:37 left, and a Bacot dunk ended the scoring drought.
Bacot scored 13 of his 17 first-half points and both teams had 10 rebounds with Tshiebwe on the bench in the first half.
“It just gives us a little perspective on just how much better we’ve got to be as a team to be able to be where we want to be,” Bacot said.
After going nearly six minutes without a field goal, UNC finished the first half with a 10–5 run to cut Kentucky’s halftime lead to 40–29, Carolina’s largest halftime deficit of the season, after trailing by as many as 18 points.
Davis was hopeful after the way the first half ended.
“I was very encouraged by that,” Davis said. “And then I felt like, coming in the second half, that we would continue to play that way. We actually went the opposite direction.”
An 8–2 Wildcats run shoved the lead back to 18 at 53–35 with 16:17 left in the game with transition points. The lead ballooned to 30 on a Tshiebwe dunk with 8:56 left and just kept rising.
“Even though this was very disappointing, for 11 games, I’m very proud of this team,” Davis said. “And there’s a lot more to go. And, so, that’s why I say this is the type of experience that will help us to be better so that when we meet Kentucky, we meet Tennessee, we meet Purdue in the NCAA tournament, we’re a better team.”
The Tar Heels return home at 7 p.m. Tuesday to face Appalachian State (ACC Network) in their final non-conference game before facing Virginia Tech at home eight days later on Dec. 29.
The Mountaineers (6–6) lost Thursday at Duke 92–67 after only trailing 34–33 with 4:28 left in the first half. ASU and UNC have a common opponent in Furman. The Paladins beat the Mountaineers 73–65 on Dec. 10 and lost to the Tar Heels on Tuesday 74–61.
No. 21 Ky. 98, UNC 69
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 3 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 18 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (4–1, 1-0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3||Las Vegas||Z — No. 21 Kentucky|
|21||Tuesday, 7, ACCN||Home||Appalachian State|
|29||Wednesday, 7, ESPN2||Home||Virginia Tech|
|1||Saturday, noon, ACCN||Road||Boston College|
|5||Wednesday, 9, ESPN2||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||Saturday, 1, ESPN||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|31||Monday, 7, ESPN||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 2 Duke|
|8||Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 2 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball