CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina, a team desperately in need of a win, got one the hard way. The Tar Heels didn't hit a single field goal in the final 6:46 yet managed to beat Kentucky, 75-73.
Why it happened: The Heels were as close to perfect as they needed to be from the free-throw line, hitting 14 of 16 in the final 6:46 to keep Kentucky at bay. More than that, though, it was Carolina's ability to expose Kentucky's lack of a strong post presence by riding the coattails of Tyler Zeller. Zeller finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds, including 10 of the Heels final 15, all from the line.
What it means: North Carolina might be able to exhale a little bit. The pressure on the Heels on the heels of their NIT season and a lackluster 4-3 start has been immense. It's not just the losses, it's the way UNC has lost. Looking disjointed and dispassionate, the Heels did little to make people feel like things would be any different this season. This is just one game, of course, but the way North Carolina played -- showing toughness and guts -- could be just the shot in the arm the Heels need. The catharsis was obvious as fans in the Dean Dome celebrated as if they'd won the ACC instead of just one game in December.
This certainly isn't a killer for Kentucky. The Wildcats played on the road against a team desperate for a win and despite foul trouble at every turn, were in the game until the last possession.
The answer begins with Zeller: Harrison Barnes is supposed to be the star, but the best player wearing a Tar Heel uniform is Tyler Zeller so far this season. North Carolina is downright silly if they don't get him as many touches as they can. He's missed on double digits just once this season -- eight against Charleston -- and has the inside strength to dominate and the outside shot to stretch defenses out. Mix in his effort on the defensive end and you've got all you need to build a team around. Zeller's line was downright pretty against Kentucky: 27 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and 11 of 12 from the line.
Pick a freshman, any freshman: Kentucky has plenty of talented first-year players from which to choose. Terrence Jones owned Maui; Brandon Knight was the star against Boston University. In North Carolina, it was Doron Lamb's turn. Lamb couldn't miss, scoring like he was playing a game of H-O-R-S-E and calling his shots. Lamb finished with 24, sinking three of Kentucky's nine 3-pointers.
Why Kentucky is still trying to free Enes: For those who think John Calipari should just give up his effort to get Enes Kanter eligible, consider this: In the first half, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson had 33 of the Tar Heels' 40 points and UNC beat up Kentucky on the boards, 22-12. Eloy Vargas played just seven minutes and Josh Harrelson only six, as both were saddled by foul trouble. And regardless of the fouls, the duo lacks the talent and skill that Kanter could bring. Things didn’t change dramatically for the game, either. Zeller, Henson and Barnes had 52 points and 27 rebounds for the game.
Harrison Barnes comes and goes: The struggling freshman asserted himself with authority in the first half, scoring 12 points, including one exclamation point rebound dunk that ignited the crowd and seemingly Barnes. But just as everyone was preparing for the Barnes' coming-out party, he disappeared again. Barnes opened the second half for the Heels with a foolish (and short) jumper and wasn't heard from again, save for a costly turnover with two minutes to play and the Heels down one. He went scoreless in the second half, putting up five shots and fading into the background. On half isn't enough for Barnes to live up to his expectations and to ignite the Heels.
At the half: Kentucky led 42-40 in the first half, but weaknesses showed for both teams. For Kentucky that meant a lack of a dominant big man. The Tar Heels scored 18 points in the paint compared to just six for the Wildcats. For North Carolina, the problem, as it has been all season, was turnovers. The Heels coughed up the ball 10 times which led to 20 easy Kentucky points.