College Hoops Saturday Recap: Tar Heels Beat Kentucky

December 5th, 2010
While you never want to say that a game is a "must-win", make no mistake about the importance of North Carolina getting a win over Kentucky on Saturday afternoon. While Roy Williams' team had wins over UNC Asheville and College of Charleston before losing at Illinois, UNC's play will be measured by its performance in the games against elite competition. And the troubles that plagued them in two losses in Puerto Rico as well as Tuesday's loss in Champaign, from poor guard play to interior depth to the struggles of Harrison Barnes, are issues that will need to be solved if they're to get back to the NCAA Tournament. And while there were still issues in regards to backcourt consistency, and after a flash of brilliance in the first half Barnes retreated into the background, the most important thing on Saturday is that North Carolina beat Kentucky 75-73. And the frontcourt, maligned for its lack of depth and muscle, played a major role in the result thanks to excellent games from Tyler Zeller (27 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks) and John Henson (13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks).

"I'm ecstatic with the win," remarked Coach Williams after the game. "It was a hard-fought, hand to hand combat kind of game. It was an ugly win, but I'll take that. I was extremely impressed with our toughness down the stretch, except for one time where they shoot the ball, miss it, the ball gets on the floor and they come up with the offensive rebound."

Kentucky was led by Doron Lamb, who scored 24 points off the bench but his half-court shot as time expired fell short and to the left of the rim. But the offensive struggles of Terrence Jones (3-for-17 FG) combined with frontcourt foul trouble (Jones, Josh Harrelson and Eloy Vargas all fouled out) spelled doom for a young Kentucky team that's still finding its own way (in addition to hoping their appeal on the Enes Kanter ruling is upheld). Two young teams looking to establish an identity led to a sloppy game at the Dean Dome, but it also provided a level of excitement that's rarely befitting of an early December matchup. The two teams seem to be almost a mirror image of each other in regards to the problems they need to solve. While Kentucky is looking to mold Brandon Knight into the point guard role the Tar Heels are looking for solid play from Larry Drew II and Kendall Marshall, and Drew played well in the second half.

But there was also the troubling need for a late timeout, almost as a reminder that North Carolina needed to get Zeller the ball on the block. There should be no need for reminders when your best player is calling for the ball. Barnes had a stretch in the first half that showed glimpses as to why so many thought as highly of the freshman before the season started, but after that 10-point outburst he scored just twice the remainder of the game. He had four rebounds in addition to the 12 points but at this point in his career Barnes looks to be more of a blender and at some point this season the Heels will need him to be a standout as he's their best perimeter scoring option. So while it's definitely a positive sign that Zeller and Henson played as well as they did there are still issues to be worked out, and the same goes for a Kentucky squad that competed from start to finish. But there's also a lot of time between now and March, and such is the beauty of a game like this.

Other Notable Happenings

1. Illinois handles Gonzaga in Seattle.
Illinois led by six early in the second half, 34-28, and needed a big basket in order to establish some distance between themselves and Gonzaga at Key Arena. Enter Mike Tisdale, who knocked down a pair of three pointers to kick-start a 14-3 run to put the game away. Defensively the Illini did a good job of making leading scorer Steven Gray work, limiting him to two points until about the halfway point of the second half in a game they won 73-61. It was a balanced effort for Illinois as well, with all five starters scoring in double figures and as a team they made 12 of 23 shots from beyond the arc. Gonzaga out-rebounded Illinois 35-24 but when you make 40% of your shots from the field and 3 of 16 from behind the arc you're more than likely going to lose. Robert Sacre led the way with 15 and 10 while Elias Harris added 12 points off the bench for the Bulldogs. Balance will be what makes Bruce Weber's team a contender in the Big Ten, and Saturday was another very good indicator of whether or not they can get it done against good competition.

2. Duke's second half surge puts away Butler.
In a matchup of the two programs that played for last season's national title, few expected Butler to hang around with a top-ranked Duke team that's looked as good as anyone to this point in the season. But despite losing Shelvin Mack in the second half to cramping issues (they definitely could have used him as the offense struggled to score points) Butler more than held their own before a mid-second half surge propelled the Blue Devils to an 82-70 victory. Nolan Smith (24 points) and Kyrie Irving (21) combined to score 45 and Duke outscored the Bulldogs 49-37 in the second half as they were able to take advantage of both Mack's absence and the foul line (+14 in points from the charity stripe) to make up for a subpar afternoon from beyond the arc (8-26 3PT). Saturday did provide some positives for the Bulldogs however as Ronald Nored helped out defensively in his return after missing the last two games and Shawn Vanzant could be the perimeter compliment they need to go along with Mack.

3. Morehead State lands the first blow in the OVC race.
In a game that the casual college basketball fan may have overlooked, Kenneth Faried and Demonte Harper led the Eagles to a 75-65 win over the defending Ohio Valley tournament champs to move to 2-0 in conference play. Harper led all scorers with 22 points while Faried added another double-double (21 points and 10 rebounds), and as a team Morehead State shot 60% from the field. Murray State turned the ball over nineteen times but an encouraging sign for Billy Kennedy's team may be that they were able to keep in contact in regards to rebounding (24-23 Morehead State edge), as Morehead State entered the game with one of the better rebounding margins in the nation (plus-10.3). Isaiah Canaan led Murray State with 17 points, but despite their both getting into double figures both B.J. Jenkins and Isaac Miles shot 2-for-7 from the field. Both teams now "retreat" to their neutral corners until the rematch at Murray State on February 24th. Expect a lot more to be on the line in that contest.

Top Three Games

1. North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73

2. Albany 88, Siena 82 (OT) Despite 28 points and 13 rebounds from senior forward Ryan Rossiter, Siena fell in overtime to the Great Danes at the Times Union Center. Tim Ambrose and Logan Aronhalt combined to score 51 points to lead the victors.

3. Miami (FL) 79, West Virginia 76 The Hurricanes came back from 13 points down with 12 minutes remaining to knock off the Mountaineers at home. Malcolm Grant led the way with a career-high 26 points for Miami while Truck Bryant led four Mountaineers in double figures with 20.

Three Notable Performances

1. F Noah Dahlman (Wofford) 37 points, eight rebounds and two assists in the Terriers' 79-65 win over Elon. Dahlman made 13 of 19 shots from the field and 11 of 14 from the foul line.

2. G Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) 36 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals in the Jackrabbits' 82-75 loss to North Dakota State.

3. F Delvon Johnson (Arkansas) 20 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in the Razorbacks' 97-70 win over Troy.