UNC-vs.-Kentucky-036Kentucky was taller and more talented. Carolina was tougher.

That about sums up how the Tar Heels outlasted the Wildcats in one of the greatest games (if not the prettiest) in Smith Center history.

In its 29th season on campus, the old girl was never louder, never better looking and never happier when the horn sounded on UNC’s 82-77 victory over the 10th-ranked ‘Cats, as Carolina became the first basketball team this season to take down three top-ten opponents.

First off, most every seat was filled long before tip-off, a tribute to the marquee match-up, the convenient 5:15 starting time and all the hype about the 36th renewal of the early December rivalry that took a year off in 2012. And when patrons arrived, they found white Carolina t-shirts draped over the back of every chair, a planned “white-out” compliments of UNC supplier Nike.

A few people refused to put them over whatever they were wearing, and video cameras catching those culprits shamed them into joining the crowd. It was one of many cool and colorful promotions in a building whose atmosphere has been completely made over the last two years – from the booming voice of PA announcer Tony Gillam, to an electronic ribbon board all around the fascia of the upper deck to enhanced graphics and features by Ken Cleary and his UNC New Media staff.

Between the sidelines and baselines, the Tar Heels of Roy Williams came up with another bravura performance, refusing to wilt to Kentucky’s lineup of freshmen and sophomores from 6-6 to 7 feet. For example, the Wildcats start twin guards who are a foot taller combined than Marcus Paige and Nate Britt. But they don’t put heart size on the lineup card.

UNC-vs.-Kentucky-034Paige and Britt were clearly the “toughest little suckers” on the court, teaming for 31 points after totaling only four in the first half. Paige wound up leading all scorers with 23 points, netting 21 in the second half that included two critical baseline teardrops and finishing off a 10-for-10 day at the foul line. Both 6-foot roadrunners had gutsy drives through the tall Kentucky trees to find the basket with spinning layups to help Carolina shoot 48 percent on the day.

Still, the Heels can be offensively challenged, especially when certain combos are on the floor. Williams did one of his more masterful coaching jobs, getting key minutes out of 10 players to keep Carolina out of serious foul trouble. Platooning offensive and defensive substitutions for most of the wild afternoon, Williams was able to offset Kentucky’s considerable rebounding advantage (44-32, 17-12 on the offensive glass) by holding the Cats to 41 percent shooting and committing a season-low nine turnovers, which limited their easy baskets.

Coach John Calipari’s club changes faces every season, as he leads the world in recruiting one-and-done players. The biggest name was 6-10 freshman Julius Randle, but the biggest games came from fellow frosh James Young and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, who combined for 53 of Kentucky’s 77 points but were still held to 14 of 33 shooting.

UNC got contributions from just about everyone – in points, rebounds, assists and pure guts. Not quite as young as Kentucky, the Heels are still babes of the hardwood, as suspended senior Leslie McDonald and junior P.J. Hairston remained on the bench wearing warm-ups under their Nike shirts. In their absence, Carolina continues to do it by committee, and the Heels are going around the table nicely.

J.P. Tokoto is taking advantage of his found playing time, scoring 15 on 7-of-10 from the floor, which has given him a .605 shooting percentage over the last four games. James Michael McAdoo keeps coming out of his shell with the best game of his junior season. Switching between power forward and small forward, while also playing inside UNC’s nine possessions of zone, McAdoo added a team high four assists and five rebounds to his 20 points; he went to the line 19 times, making a career-high 12 of them. Several hit the rim, bounded high and dropped through, supporting the theory that God may be a Tar Heel after all.

The Heels converted a sub-par 58 percent of their 45 free throws but, as Williams said afterward, they “made enough of them.” Kentucky, ironically, shot 43 times from the line but still had the most a Williams-coached UNC team has ever allowed.

Carolina’s law firm down low – Kennedy Meeks, James and Johnson – all had their moments while rotating for a total of 56 minutes while Ol’ Roy moved JMM from the perimeter to the post and JP from the wing to the backcourt. From that big boy group came 49 points and 22 rebounds and 7 of the team’s 10 assists, none bigger than another Meeks football pass to a streaking Tokoto for a high-flying dunk that gave Carolina a six-point lead with 15 seconds left.

In a game that honored coaching legend Dean Smith with a moving halftime ceremony for receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the final 60 seconds or so were a reminder of how Smith could make the last minute seem like an hour with timeouts, quick fouls and free throws. Trying to claw back from a 5-7 point deficit, Kentucky committed eight fouls to give Carolina 14 free throws.

20131214_194947The game lasted a full two and a half hours, but who cared? Even the surprising number of Kentucky fans who got into the Dean Dome were gracious at the end, comparing the Smith Center favorably to Rupp Arena for the biggest Wildcat games. They seemed to know their young team is a work in progress, which Calipari confirmed later with a not-so-subtle characterization of too many individuals worried about themselves. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Cal said before taking his 8-3 club back to the Bluegrass.

Happy Tar Heels left walking in the rain and wondering what the heck is happening to a 7-2 season that has looked so bad at times but, Saturday, looked so damn good for everyone there in person and on national television to see.