LEXINGTON, Ky. -- North Carolina was one or two possessions short of pulling off a monumental comeback -- from 19 points down to a possible win over the No. 4 team in the country. On the road.
The Tar Heels ultimately fell short, losing 68-66 to Kentucky in front of a record Rupp Arena crowd (24,468 surpassed the 2007 record vs. Florida of 24,465).
But all is not lost. In fact, plenty was gained to show that the Tar Heels are well on their way toward making a third-straight run at a Final Four appearance.
What a week for Roy's boys. On Tuesday, North Carolina beat the preseason No. 2, Michigan State, in Chapel Hill in the signature Big Ten/ACC Challenge game. And then after absorbing a 28-2 run in Saturday's first half, the Tar Heels were right there to steal a victory from Kentucky.
"We lost ourselves in the game and we were starstruck early, hit a couple of shots (to go up 9-2), thinking this will be good and then they hit us in the mouth and we panicked offensively and got our tails kicked," said UNC coach Roy Williams, coaching this week with a sling on his left shoulder after undergoing surgery last week.
"But in the second half we realized that we had a chance if we decided to play and they decided to play," Williams said.
What the Tar Heels learned quite quickly was how much their inside game can change the game. Deon Thompson made shots inside and out. Ed Davis converted facing the basket. Both altered shots inside. David Wear hit a critical 3-pointer during the comeback. And Tyler Zeller had a spell where he was on with his jump hook.
But if the Tar Heels are going to be a contender for the ACC title and Final Four they will need their perimeter to avoid droughts. No one Carolina will face the rest of the season can do what Kentucky phenom John Wall did in the open court. That's not the question. Marcus Ginyard and Will Graves made shots in stretches, but it may -- as everyone probably guessed it would -- come down to Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland playing the point more seamlessly.
Williams said Strickland grew up against the Spartans, scoring nine points, with three assists and no turnovers in 14 minutes.
Strickland had a thunderous drive-by dunk during Carolina's Saturday comeback. He finished with five points (2 of 5 shooting), three steals, two turnovers, one assist in 16 minutes.
But Drew was more erratic. It was hard enough having to defend Wall and speedy Eric Bledsoe. But Drew still was a bit too passive for Williams. Drew had six assists and four turnovers and was 0-of-4 on 3s.
"Larry has to push it harder," Williams said. "He’s still so conservative."
Drew said he felt like he let the team down because he didn't attack enough and missed his teammates when they were open. The sense of urgency after being down 19 got to the Tar Heels and forced them all to play with more purpose and value on each possession.
"It took a lot of poise for us to get back in this game," Ginyard said.
There were a few reasons the Tar Heels were able to get back from 19 down against Kentucky, and not from down double digits against Syracuse in New York earlier this season. Kentucky lost Wall for stretches and the Wildcats showed inexperience at key spots. As Thompson said, "they weren’t sitting in a 2-3 zone."
Carolina had one of the toughest weeks that anyone will play this season. The Tar Heels get one reprieve next Saturday against Presbyterian before they finish their group of death with a game in Arlington, Texas, at Cowboys Stadium against Texas on Dec. 19.
"At the start of the season, I looked at the rankings and saw we were playing 2-3-4 in Michigan State, Texas and Kentucky," Williams said. "I knew this would be a tough stretch."
But it's obvious to everyone around the Tar Heels that there is no quit in this team and that in due time they will be one of the teams fighting for a spot in Indy. The Tar Heels were down after the game but clearly understood that they got better during the game. They were right there to take out Kentucky in front of one of the most hostile road environments a team will face this season.
"It was a difficult week," Drew said. "But come March, we'll be facing teams like this."
And it's likely they'll do quite well.