Just months removed from one of the greatest college basketball games ever played, the seventh-ranked UNC men’s basketball team experienced a bit of déjà vu on Saturday during an adrenaline-fueled 103-100 loss to No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas.
Led by freshman guard Malik Monk’s 47 points—a number that nobody in the entire country has matched this season—the Wildcats outlasted the Tar Heels in a game that might as well have been an early Christmas gift for college basketball fans.
Having trailed Kentucky’s talented bunch of youngsters for the majority of the game, UNC stormed back over the final eight minutes. Justin Jackson showed an aggressiveness that was rarely seen during his first two years in Chapel Hill, as his layup with 44 seconds to play gave him a career-high 34 points and put the Tar Heels ahead by two.
Of course, anyone watching knew exactly what Kentucky’s response would be.
As head coach John Calipari screamed at his star freshman to drive the ball to the rim, the cold-blooded Monk pulled up on the left wing and sank his eighth three-pointer of the game over the outstretched arms of UNC forward Isaiah Hicks—the same player that defended Villanova’s Kris Jenkins on the shot that won a different group of Wildcats a national title.
Head coach Roy Williams then let the Tar Heels run down court without calling a timeout, but an errant shot from Hicks gave Williams and his team yet another heartbreaking loss under the national spotlight.
“I’m proud of the way they played down the stretch,” Williams said about UNC’s valiant late game efforts. “We made a bunch of mistakes that hurt us, yet at the same time you have to congratulate Kentucky. I mean, Malik [Monk] was off the charts.
“Those were some big time shots for them,” the coach continued. “I don’t like it, but it was a heck of a college basketball game if you don’t care who won. But I do care who wins.”
For a majority of the night, the action looked like it came straight out of an old-school NBA Jam arcade machine—a two-on-two matchup with everyone on fire.
Monk and Jackson, for as much as they did individually, each had sidekicks at the point guard spot to help carry the heavy load.
Freshman DeAaron Fox scored 24 points and dished 10 assists for Kentucky, while UNC’s Joel Berry tallied 23 points, seven assists and five rebounds in his first game back from a sprained ankle.
Whenever Kentucky desperately needed a bucket, though, the sharp-shooting Monk managed to turn the T-Mobile Arena into his own personal playground—even forcing UNC to try out a zone defense at times.
After the game, Berry gave his perspective on what it was like trying to cool down a man who at times, seemed as if he wasn’t even human.
“He just got it going early, and once he got hot it was hard to stop him,” Berry said of Monk. “I don’t think we did a good job of making him uncomfortable, and I think that’s why he was able to get as hot as he did.
“That’s on us,” he added. “We just can’t let a player like that beat us.”
While Monk and Fox certainly were the two biggest reasons UNC came up short on Saturday, there were a number of other issues that plagued the Tar Heels throughout the game.
Each of the three Tar Heel big men—Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley—battled serious foul trouble, Kentucky outrebounded them and Jackson missed five of his 15 free throws.
Throw in a first-half technical foul on Williams for angrily tossing his jacket in protest of a call on Hicks, and you can understand why Berry gained new respect for something his coach preaches all the time.
“Coach stresses in practice every single day that every play in the game is very important,” Berry said. “I think that game showed us that it is important.”
Jackson, on the other hand, sounded more like a man that was blaming himself for the team’s most recent high profile loss. Despite having a career game, the junior lamented missing a free throw after his go-ahead layup that would have made Monk’s game-winner simply a game-tying shot.
While the Tar Heels certainly gained valuable experience they will use later on down the road, Jackson seemed as if he was in no mood for moral victories.
“I mean, we were right there against one of the best teams in the country,” Jackson said. “I guess, that’s about all you can take from it.”
UNC will return home to the Smith Center this week for a matchup with Northern Iowa–a team that defeated the Tar Heels last season in Iowa.
- Monk’s 47 points were the most by a UNC opponent since Dick Groat scored 48 for Duke back in 1952. It was also the most ever scored by a Kentucky freshman in the school’s highly successful basketball history.
- Monk was also the first opponent to score at least 40 points against the Tar Heels since Boston College’s Tyrese Rice had 41 back in March of 2008.
- As foul trouble limited Hicks to just 10 points in 15 minutes for UNC, sophomore Luke Maye provided a career-high 11 points in 21 minutes off the bench.
- UNC had won its last 51 games when scoring at least 100 points.