The first time Kentucky and North Carolina played this season, the game was an as advertised barn-burner between two elite squads with an embarrassment of talent. Kentucky came out on top in that December matchup, 103-100.
The rematch on Sunday night had much higher stakes -- a trip to the Final Four. It’s unfortunate that the top two teams in the country were placed in the same region, but that’s not the first time the NCAA selection committee has done some strange stuff.
Fortunately for college fans, the results as far as the game being somewhat of an instant classic were the same. This time, however, Roy Williams and North Carolina had the ball bounce its way in the final seconds.
Junior Theo Pinson pushed the ball upcourt, into the heart of Kentucky’s defense, before passing the rock outside to walk-on forward Luke Maye, who drilled an 18-foot jumper with 0.3 seconds and propelled top-seeded North Carolina to a 75-73 victory over second-seeded Kentucky in the South Regional Final of the N.C.A.A. tournament. UNC is two wins away from avenging last season's title game loss to Villanova.
In that first matchup, Kentucky’s freshman sensation Malik Monk flushed Carolina with 47 points, embarrassing Roy Williams’ defense. This time, it was different.
UNC was totally ready for any offensive explosion by one of Kentucky’s red-hot young bloods. In this more important battle between national perennial powerhouses, Monk finished with just 12 points. And two days after scoring 39 points against U.C.L.A. in a regional semifinal, De’Aaron Fox scored just 13. Williams outmaneuvered Wildcats coach John Calipari in the end.
After trailing by five points with less than five minutes to play, the Tar Heels scored 12 straight points — a run initiated by Williams’s decision to shift to a zone defense. It seemed to bewilder Kentucky’s Big Three freshman just enough for Carolina to edge out the win. When the smoke cleared, it was Carolina’s Justin Jackson who had a game-high 19 points and Roy Williams who had the victory bath.
“It’s a fantastic feeling right now,” said Williams, whose players doused him with water in the locker room. “Best dadgum bath I’ve ever had with my clothes on.”
We witnessed the beauty of March Madness hoops with this one. The ups and downs, momentum swings, tremendous play, thrilling moments and adjustments made. In the end, this mix of emotions and magic leads to one team advancing to continue pursuing excellence and the other team sad and dejected and wondering what could have been.
It was touching and refreshing to see the Kentucky freshman sobbing profusely and caring so much about the game, instead of shaking it off as we have seen so many of them do, caring only about whether or not their next move is the NBA.
We knew this game was going to be a thriller and once again, this installment of March Madness proved to be just that.
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