Kentucky upset UNC in final minutes of CBS Sports Classic: What it means for the Wildcats

ATLANTA — Despite blowing a 12-point second-half lead, No. 14 Kentucky held on for an 87-83 victory against No. 9 North Carolina on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic.

That the match was close at all, given its start, was surprising. Kentucky took a 17-8 lead right out of the gate, stunning UNC with its high-octane offense, which KenPom ranks 14th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. It wasn’t just one man carrying the Wildcats; five different players scored in the first eight minutes, a balanced attack that carried over into the rest of the contest. (UK finished with eight players scoring at least seven points, none more than freshman guard Rob Dillingham’s 17.)

But even with early turnover issues — UNC had 11 in the first half, leading to 14 Kentucky points — and poor shooting, the Tar Heels battled back and made things competitive. About midway through the first half, UNC made five straight baskets … at the same time Kentucky missed 10 straight. Topping that off with an 8-0 UNC run to end the half, Kentucky led by just two at the break.

Despite taking 10 more shots in the first half than the Tar Heels, the Wildcats had just one more shot.

The start of the second half was much like the first: Kentucky went on a 15-5 run, regaining the lead it had lost just before halftime. But again, North Carolina — led this time by senior guard RJ Davis, who finished with a game-high 27 points — clawed its way back, eventually tying the game at 71 with 5:15 left.

The tying free kick came courtesy of UNC center Armando Bacot, and his second shot gave the Tar Heels the lead for the first time all game. It lasted 16 seconds. John Calipari’s team immediately responded with a 6-0 run — four of those points coming from Dillingham — to set up the final four minutes of back-and-forth fireworks.

The difference late? Rebounding, an area where Hubert Davies’ team struggled all day. UK outscored UNC by 10 for the game as the Tar Heels managed just 11 rebounds in the second half against Kentucky’s formidable front line. The Wildcats collecting six offensive rebounds in the final 3:52 proved to be the difference, UNC unable to get the stops it needed to fully complete the comeback.

And yet, thanks to a couple of missed free throws by Kentucky, UNC had the ball three-pos with 11.9 seconds left. Then the turnover. Davis replaced rookie Elliott Caddo, who hadn’t played nearly nine minutes, and Caddo, immediately after crossing midcourt, threw a pass to Cormac Ryan that ricocheted off Ryan’s back. Davis tried to make the save before crossing midcourt but missed, essentially ending the game.

The win moves Kentucky to 8-2 on the season, while North Carolina falls to 7-3 after dropping its last game against Connecticut at Madison Square Garden.

What does this win mean for Kentucky?

Validation. That these new-look Wildcats are an old-school John Calipari team: stylish, exciting and potentially elite, even when the opponent is, as Calipari called UNC, “Final Four-level.” And what does that make Kentucky, which led the Tar Heels for 37 minutes, 13 seconds and trailed just once, by 16 seconds? “The upside of this team,” Calipari said, “is really up.” That’s because the freshmen, Calipari’s No. 1 recruiting class crop, will define the ceiling, and the early returns are very encouraging. The freshmen scored 18 of UK’s final 20 points and hit every big shot to answer every frantic UNC push.

The rookies scored 62 of their 87 points, led by the electric Dillingham, who dropped 17 points and a play-by-play celebration with former Kentucky star John Wall after one of his biggest buckets. Five-star 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw’s third college game and first start was hampered by foul trouble, but he delivered early and then late, finishing with 12 points, three boards and two steals in just 21 minutes. He sank three clutch free throws in the final 46 seconds. Everything looked like Calipari’s best teams, perennial national title contenders, from the first half of his tenure at Kentucky. It was the most encouraging sign yet that the Cats’ Hall of Fame coach may have a second act in him. — Kyle Tucker, staff writer in Kentucky

What happened to Cadeau’s turnover?

Frankly, it’s surprising that Hubert Davies brought Kado back into the game when he did. Cado hadn’t played just under nine minutes and the freshman looked crushed for most of the evening; he finished with just three points on 1-of-2 shooting while also committing four fouls and two turnovers. While Davis and his players declined to go into detail about the original design of the play, the replay showed UNC attempting to pass the ball to Davis, its leading scorer in each of the past six games. But instead, Cadeau threw a pass to Ryan — who didn’t even turn — almost immediately after crossing half court.

The frustrating thing for UNC fans, though, will be all the replay. Cadeau not only misplaced a pass, but then failed to chase down the loose ball after it hit Ryan. Instead, Davis sprinted from the corner to get it, which he did… but there was no outlet pass to save it because Caddo was behind the midcourt line at that point. The freshman guard has been the key to UNC’s success early in the season, so one mistake certainly shouldn’t doom it, but it was a critical missed opportunity that could have at the very least sent the game to overtime. — Brendan Marks, UNC staff writer

What does this loss mean for North Carolina?

That the Tar Heels still have work to do. But also, consider this: Despite committing 17 turnovers, rebounding with 10, shooting below 50 percent overall and 33.3 percent from 3, UNC still had multiple opportunities to win. This against one of the most athletic teams in the country, a legitimate top 10 team, should be encouraging, even if the result is disappointing.

North Carolina needs more from Bacot — who had nine points on just four shots and just six rebounds (compared to six turnovers and four fouls) — and to shoot more consistently, but this is still a top 15 or so teams in the country. That may be hard to take after two straight missed marquee opportunities and there are plenty of improvements to be made, but UNC is still one of the ACC’s best teams. — brands

Required reading

(Photo: Jordan Godfrey/USA Today)

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