Twenty minutes had passed, and North Carolina looked like the team with the porous defense, youth out the wazoo, and the inability to execute its own offense.
No. 5 Kentucky forced the No. 10 Tar Heels into 11 first-half turnovers. Freshman guard John Wall had 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting. The Wildcats shot 57 percent as a team.
Oh, and Kentucky entered the locker room up 43-28 in front of a record 24,648 fans at Rupp Arena, answering the question of whether the Wildcats’ youth could stay focused on college basketball’s biggest stage.
It didn’t matter what happened from that point on, as Kentucky had already proven its worth and stood up to its biggest critic—Head Coach John Calipari.
“There were times where we looked really good defensively. There were times we looked really, really good defensively,” Calipari said. “For us to be this young and not be very good or know what we are doing, we have guys that are trying to have a will to win.”
The Wildcats started down 9-2, but five minutes later it was 19-8 in favor of the home team. The run continued, eventually peaking at 30-11 with eight minutes left in the first half—enough to put North Carolina away.
"It was a big run,” Wall said. “They had a great team, and they made plays on defense, but we just kept making open shots. We made a lot of big plays and were able to make a big run like that.”
The only thing Wall did wrong all day was refer to “we” instead of "I" when talking about Kentucky's run.
Wall left the game early in the second half with leg cramps and didn’t return until 11:44 remained. During that time—when Wall sat in the Kentucky training room attached to an IV—the Tar Heels pieced together a comeback, narrowing the deficit to 10 points by the time the freshman sensation returned to the court.
Without him, it was the Wildcats who looked lost.
“There were times late in the game where you had to say, `Why did (they) do that?' Because that is exactly what I was saying,” Calipari said.
And although the first half was the one that showcased Kentucky’s potential, Calipari said it was the second that taught them how to play when everything isn’t going right.
“You guys are going to say that I am crazy, but I am happy how this played out,” Calipari said. “We had to play without John (Wall) against a good team, and we had to just figure it out. When another team makes a run at us, let's see what we do. You have to understand how to play to finish it off.”
The Wildcats did—just barely—going on to win 68-66 and move to 8-0 on the season.
Moving ahead, it’s hard to count on Kentucky losing Wall to more cramps as the season draws on and he adjusts to pace of major college basketball.
That means it’s hard to count on the Wildcats not living up to their explosive first half against the Tar Heels the next time they’re featured on the national stage.
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