After struggling to get ahead of Kentucky (1-5) in the first half, the North Carolina men’s basketball team (5-2) had a second-half surge on offense when the Wildcats sat players in foul trouble en route to a 75-63 win for the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels sputtered on offense following the opening tip. Their season-long struggles from 3-point range spilled over into the CBS Sports Classic when first-year guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love and junior forward Leaky Black each missed a shot from deep before UNC found itself down 9-4 at the first media timeout.
Once North Carolina’s bench unit entered the game a few minutes later, the energy levels dropped and Kentucky began to pull away before a 7-0 UNC run brought it within six points, 19-15. During the run, first-year guard Kerwin Walton hit the Tar Heels’ first shot from behind the arc with 11:43 remaining in the first half.
From there, North Carolina found most of its success in the post, with senior forward Garrison Brooks’s eight points on 4-5 shooting leading the team at the final media timeout of the first half. Through some back-and-forth action, the Tar Heels managed to claw their way into the lead, 27-25, off of a Davis 3-pointer, the team’s second successful 3-pointer of the game, with the shot clock expiring and 4:56 left in the first frame.
The lead didn’t last long, though, as the Tar Heels found themselves trailing, 38-34, heading into halftime.
A sloppy start to the second half from both teams saw Kentucky’s narrow lead shrink even further to 42-40, as North Carolina got a couple of huge blocks and buckets from sophomore Armando Bacot and first-year Day’Ron Sharpe.
UNC picked up the most momentum of the game when Kentucky found itself in foul trouble midway through the second half, and Walton hit a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Tar Heels a 51-49 lead.
Second-half foul trouble doomed the Wildcats, leading to four Kentucky players fouling out and exiting the game early. UNC took advantage of the situation with a 20-6 run in the second half en route to the 75-63 win.
Who stood out?
Through the first half, Love was on track to have one of the most efficient outings of his first seven games with UNC. Although he struggled from 3-point range, he showed why he was a top-15 recruit out of high school with multiple strong attacks straight to the basket. The first-year point guard finished the first half with nine points on 4-8 shooting, three assists and no turnovers.
Walton’s 3-point shooting seemed to rejuvenate the North Carolina offense in the second half. In the first-year’s best game of the season, he finished with 13 points on 3-3 shooting, making three of the Tar Heels’ five shots from deep.
When was it decided?
In the middle of 12-1 UNC run in the middle of the second half, the Wildcats were left with two players with four fouls each and another two with three fouls apiece. That foul trouble led to a depleted Kentucky squad suffering a scoring drought for roughly nine minutes until the closing minutes of the game.
By then, it was too late, and the Tar Heels capitalized to stay in front and finish strong in the win.
Why does it matter?
The CBS Sports Classic was UNC’s last non-conference game of the season before the Tar Heels begin their onslaught of 20 ACC games. With an incomplete offseason and last-minute non-conference schedule to prepare, this game against Kentucky was North Carolina’s last chance to work out the kinks before it heads into ACC play.
With UNC struggling for the majority of the afternoon against a Kentucky team having one the program’s worst starts to a season ever, this narrow win could be a red flag for the rest of the season.
Who do they play next?
The Tar Heels will travel to Raleigh for a road game with N.C. State at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, to begin their 20-game gauntlet of conference matchups.
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