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Hype fulfilled in instant classic between UK, UNC

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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 11 rebounds in UK's 73-72 win over No. 5 North Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 11 rebounds in UK's 73-72 win over No. 5 North Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari must live in a bubble, because he claimed to be unaware of the anticipation for Saturday's game between Kentucky and North Carolina until the night before the teams were set to face off.

Apparently he didn't hear about the fact that dozens of NBA executives and scouts were going to be in attendance. It must have escaped him that CBS was in town to televise its first college basketball game of the season. It seems no one told him many were calling it the toughest ticket in Rupp Arena in years.

"I didn't realize, because I hadn't been watching much TV, that this game was being played up like the end all of end alls," Calipari said. "I turn on ESPN and it's on the ticker. Every announcer was talking about this game."

Calipari was the only one left in the dark.

The Big Blue Nation came out in droves as Rupp Arena housed the eighth-largest crowd in its history (24,398) for a game that improbably lived up to every ounce of the hype that surrounded it. No. 1 UK earned a 73-72 win over the visiting No. 5 Tar Heels as Anthony Davis blocked a John Henson shot with five seconds remaining to preserve a thrilling victory.

Based on the level of basketball played by two titans of the sport, Calipari can now appreciate why the matchup had everyone talking.

"If he didn't block the shot, we lose the game," Calipari said. "And both teams gutted it out, just gutted it out. This is supposed to be in March, not now. I'm exhausted."

With all the attention showered on UK-UNC before tip-off, the game almost seemed destined to disappoint. From the opening tip, though, it was plainly clear that wasn't going to be the case.

The crowd erupted as the Wildcats raced to an early 9-3 lead, but UNC shot its way back in front with 6-for-9 shooting from 3-point range in the first. The Heels led by as many as nine points but the Cats continually battled back with steady play from their veterans and precocious efforts from their dynamic freshmen.

The Cats followed the lead of their coach, who summoned them for a meeting late on Friday night when he did finally find out about how much the game was being talked about. He wanted to make sure the anticipation all the players were feeling was balanced with a little perspective. Some were calling the game a Final Four or even national championship game preview, but Calipari wanted to remind his team how young the season really is.

" 'It's just another game, let's learn from it,' " Calipari told his team. " 'I've been in a ton of these. You freshmen, just be there for your team. You three leaders, this is your game, you've got to run this.' "

One of his leaders, Terrence Jones, took it upon himself to echo Calipari's message.

"I was trying to convince the guys that it wasn't that big of a deal, that it was just the (eighth) game and it wasn't going to be for the national title to ease the pressure off the freshman," Jones said.

Jones and every one of the other seven UK players to see the floor on Saturday contributed to the effort. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist delivered his signature tireless effort en route to 17 points and 11 rebounds. Davis had that aforementioned block and affected countless other shots with his length. Darius Miller and Jones were the go-to scorers in the first half, while Doron Lamb stepped up in the second. Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas may have played just a combined 11 minutes, but each had their clutch moments.

It's that balance that makes this UK team so difficult to deal with.

"They have the ability to score at every position," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.

The game itself wasn't the only thing to live up to the hype surrounding it on Saturday, as the Wildcats proved themselves worth of the No. 1 ranking some said was premature for such a young team. UK persevered as the Heels knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer in the first half and the Wildcats saw open looks miss the target.

UK trailed by just five at halftime in spite of managing just 14-for-38 (36.8 percent) shooting from the field, but heated up in the second, hitting 14-of-25 (56.0 percent) attempts. The Wildcats coldly efficient play in the second half came even though the Heels actually played better defense according to their coach.

"You look at the stat sheet and (Kentucky) shot 56 percent in the second half but they were a little more patient with it than we were," Williams said. "That's a reason they were able to come from behind and get the win."

Patience was a question mark coming in to the game for a UK team that likes to run at every opportunity. However, the Cats could ill afford to take bad shots and commit turnovers that would allow Carolina to start fast breaks of its own. Marquis Teague's shot wasn't falling, but the freshman committed just one turnover and UK gave the ball away only nine times as a team.

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

That kind of praise from Calipari is rare at this early point of the season, as was the celebratory atmosphere in Rupp and the UK locker room following the game. Even so, the Wildcats weren't about to lose sight of the message Calipari sent on Friday night.

"It is 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."

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As a person who lives very close to Memphis and is a fan of the Memphis Tigers and was when Cal was the coach there, still a Tiger fan, I knew he would bring my Cats back to the top which he has done. This year should be a very good for the BBN and prove a lot of people wrong.

Merry Christmas, BBN! And thanx a lot, Santa . . . I mean, Coach Cal! What a way to kick off the holiday season. This reminded me of the epic battle between UK and the devil (also blue). Each team responded with a higher level of play. How does Coach manage to sell such a young team with so many stars on being a team first, and an NBA draft pick second? What impressed me the most was the unselfish play of the second half . . . the extra pass . . . the going for the W and not the glory! Great job, Cats! You guys are going to be so much fun to watch this year!

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