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Kentucky 76, UNC 69: The Late-Game Magic Finally Runs Out

I’m not exactly sure which end-of-the-season scenario would be worse for our readers this year. On the one hand you have a team fully capable of winning it all that ran into a buzzsaw and saw their year of promise draw to an abrupt close. On the other hand, you have a team that improved and overachieved throughout the year, then watched other contenders and top seeds fall like dominoes in the tournament, feeling all the while like fate was conspiring to perhaps deliver you a title, and then in a battle with an evenly-matched foe they just could never quite get over the hump. I saw one person write that for UNC fans, yesterday was a lot like being handed a winning lottery ticket, only to have it blow out the window.

Of course, that may be oversimplifying things and amplifying the pain a little. Truth be told, Kentucky played like the better team yesterday, and in a single-elimination tournament, that’s all it takes to go home. I still feel like if these teams played 10 games they would split them 5 and 5, but this time UNC had an unfortunate combination of both problems that we’ve all seen before (slow start, sloppy turnovers, ill-advised perimeter shooting) and some new ones that most didn’t anticipate (Henson struggling with foul trouble throughout, Kentucky shooting 55% from 3). It was painful to watch, with Barnes going cold, Marshall ineffective when he chose to drive and shoot, and Kentucky hitting every… single… big… shot. I cannot emphasize that last part enough - every time Carolina mounted a run or posed a threat, Kentucky took the types of shots that would typically help UNC get back into a game (well-guarded deep 3s, for example), but managed to hit them time after time.

Perhaps if UNC had been able to find their offensive rhythm earlier, they would have been the team controlling the flow of the game, and things could have been very different. Once they found a rhythm late in the second half, Dexter Strickland did a fantastic job bothering Brandon Knight, Barnes traded turnaround jumpers for authoritative drives to the hoop, and Tyler Zeller started to pour in points , but Carolina could never quite find their way past the Wildcats. Down one on the most crucial posession of the game with less than 2 minutes to play, Marshall chose to look for his own shot on a drive and instead had it blocked by Deandre Liggins, who then turned around and put the nail in the coffin with a 3 on the other end. The Heels wouldn’t score the rest of the way, and took some foolish shots to boot, including a lean-in 3 from Barnes where he was trying to draw a foul. For a team that’s managed to pull a lot of wins out of the proverbial hat late in games this year, it was a little surprising to see them unable to engineer another come-from-behind win, but then again none of those teams they managed to come back against all year were near the calibur of Kentucky.

Yes, there is an enourmous amount of promise for next year’s team, especially if most (or all) of UNC’s players decide to skip the draft and return to school. But right now, this one still hurts with the pain of some unfulfilled promise from the season now gone. Despite the flaws we all knew were there, we also saw how amazing Carolina could be at their best, and knowing that just having another few minutes of the latter rather than the former could have carried them a step closer to a title is a frustrating realization. There’s no guarantee for next year or any season after that guys will be better, won’t get hurt, or run into buzzsaws themselves. For now, we’re just saddled with the loss of a great season, one that fans everywhere thought could last just a week or so longer.