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UNC tops UK, but problems still present
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
The celebration began as soon as Kentucky freshman Doron Lamb’s heave from just inside of halfcourt missed badly Saturday.
North Carolina fans went ballistic inside the Dean Dome — almost as if their beloved Tar Heels were preparing to clip the nets signaling another Final Four appearance.
That’s what it has come to nowadays down here on this side of Tobacco Road.
“It’s a big-time win for us,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after the 75-73 victory against Kentucky.
Sounds like Williams over-hyping the victory, but that’s not the case at all.
Freshman Harrison Barnes was supposed to provide the answer for last season’s struggles that landed UNC in the NIT, to make the Tar Heels a legitimate Final Four contender once again.
Instead, the first seven games of this season had become so painful for North Carolina that starting shooting guard Dexter Strickland wasn’t even able to venture to read the comments on his Twitter account.
“I didn’t want to see them,” Strickland said.
There were the losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt down in Puerto Rico and then the double-digit setback to Illinois earlier this week.
Barnes hasn’t yet looked the part of a Top 50 player, never mind the top-rated frosh in America. North Carolina was, once again, playing the part of a team that would be heading to that other tournament.
But after the victory against Kentucky, those in Chapel Hill can breathe a sigh of relief. At least for the time being.
“Now I can go back on Twitter,” Strickland said with a smile.
There just aren’t many legitimate must-wins in December, but this game against John Calipari’s young group of Wildcats was one the North Carolina program had to have.
“It was one we had to win” said sophomore big man John Henson, who finished with 13 points, a dozen boards and whose length was chiefly responsible for Kentucky star freshman Terrence Jones going 3 of 17 from the field. “We needed it big-time.”
While it was a huge victory for the morale of the boys from Chapel Hill, it doesn’t mask the issues that have plagued the Tar Heels for the past year-plus and will likely continue to hamper North Carolina.
The length and athleticism up front of Tyler Zeller and Henson — who combined for 40 points and 23 rebounds — were able to slaughter a Kentucky front line that’s so inept it could use Lukasz Obrzut these days.
While Barnes scored 12 points in the first half and even showed rare emotion after the follow-up dunk, he reverted back in the second 20 minutes, making poor decisions and being held scoreless.
The Tar Heels still can’t shoot the ball from the perimeter. In fact, they were 1 of 11 from beyond the arc. Their only player capable of making a shot from outside the paint was the 7-foot Zeller.
Larry Drew II played well in the second half against Kentucky, but Tar Heels fans are so down on their starting point guard that many were calling for him to be replaced just minutes into the game.
Drew, an adequate backup on a contending team, finished with seven points, four assists and two turnovers in 30 minutes in the win — which helped the Tar Heels avoid falling to the .500 mark.
“I hope it’ll be very important,” Williams said of the victory.
And it could well be the case as it gives the Tar Heels its first resume victory after coming up empty on its first three opportunities of the season.
Maybe they will beat up on Evansville and Long Beach State and then knock off a ranked Texas team in Greensboro to make their way back in the Top 25.
But let’s not get carried away here. This isn’t a Final Four contender.
“I’m stunned we had a chance to win the game at the end,” Calipari said after the loss.
There are a variety of factors that have led to North Carolina being in this position. Barnes hasn’t yet filled the holes needed from a year ago of a go-to guy, a perimeter shooter and a leader. Fellow freshman Reggie Bullock has battled knee problems and can’t get on track shooting the ball from the perimeter.
There were multiple misses by the Tar Heels on the recruiting trail with guys like Drew, Leslie McDonald and even Strickland — once considered an elite player who now struggles to find his niche.
The departure of the Wear Twins — David and Travis — back home to the West Coast has left the Tar Heels painfully thin up front.
But they were still able to get past Kentucky. While it’s not exactly the John Wall-led Wildcats from a year ago, it was still a quality win for a program craving any victories right now.
“We just don’t want to have a year like last year,” Henson said.
That’s reason enough to celebrate this victory.
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