Tar Heels looking forward to another shot at Kentucky

UNCs 103-100 loss to the Wildcats in a regular season battle of bluebloods back on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas still sticks in the craw of coach Roy Williams and his veteran team, who need to win Sundays rematch to earn a shot at Final Four redemption

Stephen R. Sylvanie—USA Today Sports
Dec 17

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The overriding theme for the North Carolina basketball team this season has been its quest for redemption. But before the Tar Heels can get another shot at easing their pain and winning the national championship that eluded the by a single shot last year, there’s another, less publicized form of redemption that stands in their way. Kentucky. UNC’s 103-100 loss to the Wildcats in a regular season battle of bluebloods back on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas still sticks in the craw of coach Roy Williams and his veteran team, especially because of the circumstances that were involved. That’s why they relish the opportunity to right another old wrong when the top two seeds in the NCAA’s South Region meet again Sunday at FedExForum with a trip to the Final Four on the line. “We wanted to play them that next day because we knew we were right there,” Tar Heels guard Joel Berry said of that first meeting, which was decided by a late 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Malik Monk. It was just those little mistakes that made the difference between winning and losing. We’re so hyped about this game, you can just feel the atmosphere on the team. Just overall, everyone is ready.” UNC (30-7) has fared well in “revenge” games so far this season, reversing a 2015 loss to Northern Iowa and getting both Duke and Miami back for defeats earlier this season before Friday’s Sweet 16 win against Butler — a team that had won the last two meetings with the Tar Heels. Sunday’s rematch with Kentucky will be different than those other games, however, because of what’s at stake and the way both teams have evolved since their epic showdown in the CBS Sports Classic. UNC, in particular, has changed because of the addition of Theo Pinson. The 6-foot-6 junior missed the earlier meeting with Kentucky while recovering from surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot. His presence in the lineup this time around could become a factor, since he’ll likely draw the assignment of guarding Monk — who torched the Tar Heels in general and Kenny Williams in particular for eight 3-pointers on his way to a decisive 47-point performance. Pinson replaced Williams in the starting lineup after Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-February. “We talked about this a couple of times. Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game,” senior center Kennedy Meeks said. “That’s just the type of effect he has. He’s definitely one of the best defenders. He does a great job of coming in and giving us a lift.” In the end, the difference his time could come down to which team can keep its big men on the court the longest. Back in December, neither Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo and the UNC duo of Meeks and Isaiah Hicks were able to play more than 20 minutes before fouling out. All three were effective, with Adebayo recording 13 points and seven rebounds, while the Tar Heel twosome combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds while going 10 of 17 from the floor. “The big thing about them is that Bam is the only big,” Hicks said. “When me and Kennedy are in, we’ve got to take advantage of that. We need to stay out of foul trouble and keep putting pressure on them.” As anxious as the Tar Heels are to get another shot at Kentucky and a chance for redemption both now and next week, Wildcats coach John Calipari — in an obvious attempt at gamesmanship — said Saturday that he’d just as soon seen anyone else in the NCAA tournament bracket than to play UNC again. “I haven’t watched much of their games because I get focused on my team, but I turned on something and Joel Berry made three fives in a row,” Calipari said of UNC’s regular-season finale against Duke. “It was like ‘oh, my gosh’ and I remember watching them play and I’m thinking, please don’t put them in our bracket, and there they are in our bracket. “Somebody said does playing somebody (once already) help? Well, it probably helps both of us in preparation. We know we’ve done it once, but the reality of it is that game was so long ago. Both teams are better.”