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Cats take advantage of learning experience, top Tar Heels

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Sophomore guard Doron Lamb scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Sophomore guard Doron Lamb scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On Friday, University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari said Saturday's game against North Carolina was a great opportunity to learn about his team. He was right.

After grinding out a 73-72 victory in front of the eighth largest crowd in Rupp Arena history, what we learned about the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats is that they are fighters.

"For a freshman team to do this, have nine turnovers, it's incredible," Calipari said.

With emotions and runs swinging back and forth enough to make one seasick, the Cats continued to sail smoothly and kept their heads level.

Trailing for much of the game, Kentucky's 3-point shots weren't falling, going 4-17, North Carolina's were, hitting 11-18. Still, Kentucky never faded.

It's a football term, but Kentucky's defense often played a bend-don't-break type of style. The Cats found themselves on the ropes, trailing the No. 5 Tar Heels by nine in the first half with the Big Blue Nation holding its collective breath on every bounce of the ball.

They were bending, but they never broke, answering every North Carolina basket with a basket of its own. For Kentucky, it wasn't just one player who stepped up, it was a collective effort.

After scoring just two points in the opening half, sophomore guard Doron Lamb hit a pair of big 3-pointers late in second half to give the Cats a small cushion and keep North Carolina down two possessions.

Freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist recorded a double-double with career highs in points (17) and rebounds (11), but it was his defense that got the attention of his coach.

"Michael was unbelievable," Calipari said. "He is unbelievable. He's the greatest kid. I used him on defense and let him alone on offense. I'm going to tell you this. If we need a free throw late in the game, I'm giving him the ball and letting him shoot it. He will not miss it late in the game. He will make a free throw late because he's got that kind of courage."

And he did make it. With the game hanging in the balance and the Cats leading by just two at the 1:33 mark, Kidd-Gilchrist hit a pair of free throws that ultimately decided the outcome. And that, in part, is what we learned today. This team has a will to win that Calipari demands and expects with his teams.

"(We have a) will to win," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "There's a lot of chemistry there too."

When talking about senior leader Darius Miller, Kidd-Gilchrist makes a point to say just how much he really means. On Saturday, Miller provided a steady confidence amongst his teammates, scoring a dozen points in the process.

"He's a senior on the court, he's our leader, he's everything to this team," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "Everything."

Miller, who has seen the ups and downs of the Kentucky program, playing in the National Invitation Tournament as a freshman and a Final Four as a junior, knows what a win like this could mean for a young group of players, but also knows there is still work to do.

"It's a very big win," Miller said. "We felt like this was a test to see where we are at, playing against one of the best teams in the country, and we come out with a W. I think we are pretty happy and proud about it, but we know we aren't exactly where we want to be. It's still early on in the season, so we're happy."

It is early in the season, but what the Wildcats did Saturday afternoon against North Carolina is show that they will never be completely out of a game this season. Their defense, camaraderie and will to win won't let them.

It was a learning opportunity, and they did just that. They also improved to 8-0 on the season and will likely retain their No. 1 ranking for another week.

"Look, I've got good players," Calipari said. "We're young and we're inexperienced, but I've got really good players. I like my team. But more importantly, they love each other. ... That's a happy locker room in there today."

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