<
>

For the regular season, this was special

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Late Friday night, a mere 13 hours before his team tipped off against fifth-ranked North Carolina, Kentucky coach John Calipari summoned the Wildcats to Rupp Arena for an impromptu meeting at 11 p.m.

Calipari said he'd been watching from home as analysts hyped the early-season showdown on ESPN. He only hoped his players weren't listening.

"I didn't realize this game was being played up like the end-all of all end-alls," Calipari said. "I grabbed the guys and said, 'Look … everybody is making a big deal out of this. It's just another game.'"

OK, Coach.

Whatever.

Saturday's battle between two of the country's most tradition-rich programs didn't just live up to its billing. It exceeded it. Long before Anthony Davis preserved a 73-72 Kentucky victory by blocking John Henson's game-winning shot attempt from the baseline, the millions of fans watching from home certainly couldn't deny what was obvious to the 24,398 that crammed into Rupp Arena.

Kentucky and North Carolina are the top two teams in America, and it's not even a debate.

As many as 12 potential first-round NBA draft picks played in Saturday's contest, which featured eight lead changes, three ties and enough clutch shots to leave both head coaches beaming with pride. The game was played at such a high level that Calipari said he actually felt a bit sorry for Roy Williams and the Tar Heels, simply because no one should have to feel down after a performance like the one both teams turned in Saturday.

"Both teams gutted it out, just gutted it out," Calipari said. "This is supposed to happen in March, not now. I'm exhausted."

A Tar Heels-Wildcats rematch would certainly be the cherry on top of one of the most anticipated college basketball seasons in recent memory. But instead of March, the hope is that the sequel will occur on the second day of April at the Superdome in New Orleans.

That's the site of this season's NCAA championship game, and there wouldn't be anything better than Kentucky and North Carolina meeting in the final. With all due respect to the other 342 Division I fan bases out there, who wouldn't want to see this one again?

"I'd love to see them again," UK forward Terrence Jones said. "As a competitor, you want to play the best, and I'm sure they feel the same way. They're going to want a rematch."

If it never happens, though, at least college basketball fans will always have Saturday's game etched into their memories.

Neither team led by more than five points after intermission, although North Carolina appeared to be in control for good before a 13-4 run by Kentucky turned a 60-56 deficit into a 69-64 lead. Doron Lamb swished two 3-pointers during the march and finished with 12 points in the second half.

North Carolina fought back and pulled within a point, 73-72, on Reggie Bullock's 3-pointer with 47 seconds left. Marquis Teague was fouled on Kentucky's ensuing possession, but Teague missed the front end of a 1-and-1, giving the Heels one final shot.

Point guard Kendall Marshall bounced a pass inside to center Tyler Zeller, but Zeller lost control of the ball and it ended up in Henson's hands on the right baseline. As the 6-foot-11 Henson elevated for the game-winning shot, Davis seemingly came out of nowhere for the block. Davis -- a 6-10 freshman with a 7-4 wingspan -- is projected as the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft.

"If he doesn't block that shot, we lose the game," Calipari said.

Henson said he didn't see Davis approaching.

"I thought I was open," Henson said. "It was a little taste of my own medicine, which is kind of funny. I've done that before, and he did it to me this game. Credit to him, he made a great play."

North Carolina's players were so taken aback by Davis' block (which came with 5 seconds remaining) that they forgot to foul Davis, who corralled the ball and fired a pass to Teague so the guard could dribble out the clock.

"I'm just glad I was able to come up big," said Davis, who was outplayed for most of the game by Henson and Zeller. "It's something I'll never forget."

Heroic as Davis may have been, the true star of the game was Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who posted game-highs in both points (17) and rebounds (11). Calipari said beforehand that veterans such as Jones, Lamb and Darius Miller would have to be the tone-setters Saturday for a team that features three freshmen in its rotation. But the Wildcats' newcomers hardly looked intimidated against a seasoned Carolina squad.

Kentucky committed only nine turnovers and did an excellent job of exhibiting patience on offense. That was especially the case in the second half, when the Wildcats worked for open looks and shot 56 percent from the field.

Even more impressive was Kentucky's defensive effort after intermission. North Carolina shot just 34.5 percent over the final 20 minutes and misfired on 13 of its 16 2-point field goal attempts.

"I thought we handled [the big stage] well," said Kidd-Gilchrist, who turned 18 in September. "Age doesn't mean much in the game of basketball."

Actually, in most cases it does. But not at Kentucky, where in just a few months, Calipari has once again taken a cast of first-year players and turned them into NCAA championship contenders. He did it with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and he did it with Brandon Knight and Jones.

Davis, Teague and Kidd-Gilchrist are following suit, perhaps even earlier than some people expected. Granted, the presence of Miller, Lamb and Jones -- who combined for 40 points Saturday -- has certainly aided the process.

"I'm proud of our guys," Calipari said of his 8-0 Wildcats. "And I would have been proud if [Henson's] shot would've gone in."

Williams said he felt the same way about the fifth-ranked Tar Heels, who came within a point of defeating the nation's No. 1-ranked team in the most hostile environment they'll face all season.

"I cannot fault my team's effort tonight," Williams said. "It was a big-time college game. They are a very good basketball team. We think we are good as well."

But which team is better?

Kentucky, for now.

The Tar Heels hope the story is different in four months.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.