LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky lost junior forward Alex Poythress for the rest of the season, but still managed to add another reason for its opponents to worry. The outside shooting that had been so suspect? Now it looks like it could be a strength.
The Wildcats, who entered Saturday shooting 27.7 percent from 3-point range, made 7 of 15 en route to an 84-70 win against North Carolina at Rupp Arena.
North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said going into the game that he would have picked outside shooting as UK’s weakness, but not so much now.
"They came out and I don’t think they hit the rim from 3 to start," Paige said. "We were going under ball screens and play zone, but they started making 3s. That’s a tough team to beat if they start making outside shots."
Kentucky coach John Calipari will tell you Poythress can’t be replaced. And in some respects he’s right. Poythress was arguably the Cats’ most versatile defender, often making plays to jump-start the team. What Poythress didn’t do is keep opponents honest from the perimeter.
Carolina’s game plan was to force outside shots. The Tar Heels had never played zone before Saturday’s game, but tried both a 2-3 early in the game and a 1-3-1 at one point in the second half. The Cats' shooting rendered both zones ineffective.
Aaron Harrison, he of the big 3-point shots in the NCAA tournament run, had been shooting just 22 percent from 3-point range this season but was 3-for-7 against the Tar Heels. Tyler Ulis kept their defense honest by making one. And Devin Booker, who has led the team in 3s this season, scored 15 points and was perfect in three attempts from behind the arc.
"We didn’t come out going 1-for-12, which is what we have been doing," Calipari said. "And everybody talks about us offensively, when you’re 1-for-12 from the 3 I don’t care what you do, it’s not going to look good."
That means the formula to beat Kentucky -- or at least, what had seemed like would beat Kentucky -- has been altered.
Consider North Carolina’s fate in the first half of Saturday’s game:
The Wildcats led the nation in percentage of blocked shots, according to KenPom.com, but didn’t have any against the Heels through the first 20 minutes.
The Cats had been outrebounding opponents by 12 per game, yet Carolina had a three-rebound advantage.
Their superior size had dominated points in the paint, outscoring opponents by an average of 21.4 per game. But North Carolina held an 18-14 edge in that area, too. And still found itself trailing by 15 at halftime.
That’s because the early 3s opened up the floor offensively for the Wildcats. And they exploited the Heels at every turn.
"It makes it easier for the bigs," Booker said. "I wouldn’t say everyone looks at us as a shooting team, so they came out in a 2-3 zone to start, to try to cram up the middle, but we were able to open it up making 3s."
It’s a tough choice for opponents to handle. Double Kentucky’s post players on the blocks and potentially leave open Booker, Ulis or Aaron Harrison. Or respect the perimeter shooting and leave post defenders to fend for themselves 1-on-1 on the blocks.
North Carolina did not choose well.
"It affected us as far as we had to guard the ball better, because they drove and kicked [out] a lot," UNC guard Nate Britt said. "And as far as us doubling down on a big with a guard, we had to rotate faster, and when we didn’t they got open looks and knocked them down."
It was the first look at UK after Poythress tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Thursday, and no question there was a bit of an emotional lift for the Wildcats. Calipari chose Poythress to deliver the team’s pregame prayer. Players wore T-shirts as their warm-ups with the slogan "Roar for 22."
"Coach [Dean] Smith used to always think if you lose a guy, the next game you’re going to be so much better because everyone is going to try to pull for him, give a little more effort," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "But over the long term, no one is going to be better if you lose one of your better players."
It was hard to top the emotions of the day. Yet Kentucky's shooting managed to do so, and in the process make beating the Wildcats harder than before.