NCAA: Kentucky 76, UNC 69
By Tom Canavan
NEWARK, N.J. — The roller-coaster season for North Carolina had one more wild ride and one more comeback, and it came up just short.
If there was a word that was repeated over and over in the Tar Heels’ locker room after their 76-69 loss to Kentucky in the East regional finals on Sunday it was disappointment.
A third trip to the Final Four in four years was there for the taking for North Carolina (29-8) after fighting back from an 11-point second-half deficit to tie the game at 67, and the Wildcats took it away from them.
“Right now this is probably going to hurt for a week, maybe a couple of weeks,” said Tyler Zeller, who tied the game with two free throws with 3:18 to play.
“After that we’ll go back and look at what we did and take what we did well and learn from that and take it and use it as a life experience.”
The Tar Heels’ final game was much like the rest of their season. The young and talented kids from Chapel Hill fell behind early, overcame adversity and put themselves in a position to succeed.
Kentucky made the plays in the closing minutes though, and it wasn’t surprising it was a couple of 3-pointers that did in North Carolina (27-10).
The Tar Heels came into the game intent on stopping the Wildcats’ dribble penetration and that allowed Kentucky to spot up for 3-pointers. They hit a dozen, and the last two were killers.
Brandon Knight, who hit game-winning shots against Princeton and Ohio State, nailed a 3-pointer with
2:51 to play to put the Wildcats ahead 70-69.
After Zeller’s tip-in got the Tar Heels within a point with 1:52 to go, Knight missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to give North Carolina a chance to take the lead.
Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, whose insertion into the starting lineup in early January sent the Tar Heels on a 17-2 run, saw an opening down the lane with just over a minute to play and went for the basket.
For a second it seemed he was going to give Carolina the lead, but Deandre Liggins came out of nowhere and blocked the shot.
“It was a good play by him, maybe I could have done something better on that play,” Marshall said.
“Maybe I could have put my body in front of him or I should have waited for a better shot or given it to Harrison (Barnes) because he was hot. But it’s a letdown to know you took a bad shot and had it blocked and then on the other end your man hits a 3.”
That was the clincher for Kentucky.
After the block, Liggins sprinted down the court and took a pass from Darius Miller for a wide-open 3-pointer that put Kentucky ahead 73-69 with 37 seconds to go.
Barnes, the talented freshman who had 10 of his 18 points in the Tar Heel’s final surge, had a 3-pointer blocked at the other end to put the Tar Heels away.
“It’s not really something I’m thinking about,” Barnes said when asked about going to the NBA.
“All I know is the last two years I played basketball, it ended with a championship, not a loss. I never felt like this before. That’s the only thing going through my mind.”
It was painful to watch the players in powder blue realize their dream had slipped away. It became even more painful to Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams seconds later.
Knight was fouled in front of the North Carolina bench seconds later and fell into the coach’s right knee. Williams got up and limped noticeably for a couple of seconds.
Williams then looked at Knight and told him the foul hurt more than the knee, showing he had not lost his well known sense of humor.
“I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody,” said Williams, who said his knee was fine after the game.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride and they’ve been an unbelievable group of kids and they really made coaching fun.
“And we’ve had some adversity and they just kept together and kept coming back, just like they did today. And it was a wonderful, wonderful time for us.”
It was very much like the season.
Picked No. 8 in the preseason poll, North Carolina struggled early, fell out of the rankings and eventually didn’t get any votes.
The Heels righted things in January despite having point guard Larry Drew II quit the team after losing his starting job to Marshall and eventually they won the ACC regular season title.
The conference tournament was another ride as they overcame double-digits deficits to Miami and Clemson before losing the title game to Duke.
Against Kentucky, they just could not overcame another young and talented team that shot 54.4 percent (12 for 22) from long range.
The Tar Heels were a woeful 3 for 16 and they played much of the game without talented big man John Henson, who was in foul trouble and scored only four points.
“This hurts,” Henson said. “I feel like I let the team down. There is no consolation in coming this far. For somebody else there might be.
“We were playing for a championship and this isn’t a championship, so there is no consolation.”