By RICHARD CHEEKS
On Saturday in Las Vegas, Nevada, two of the game’s true blue blood programs faced off inside the ring at a venue more associated with championship heavy weight boxing than championship college basketball. These giants stood toe to toe for a full 40 minutes. During this bout, each team delivered shuttering blows to the other, and each of them withstood the best that their opponent could deliver.
In the last 2 minutes and 56 seconds alone, there were two ties and two lead changes. UNC pulled even, 95-95, at 2:56 with a pair of free throws. This was the first time that UNC had been even with the Cats in this game since UNC’s Joel Berry tied the score at 17-17 with 13:51 remaining in the first half. The Cats failed to match the Tar Heels when the Cats committed a turnover with 2:25, and following a UNC missed 3 pointer, Wenyen Gabriel fumbled a feed from Malik Monk out of bounds with 1:51.
UNC’s Justin Jackson made a huge 3 pointer to lift UNC into a 3 point lead, 98-95, with a mere 1:37 remaining. However, even though those watching these heavy weights battle thought the Jackson 3 pointer may have been rocked the Cats back on their heels, ready to receive the knockout blow, Malik Monk lurched forward 16 seconds later with a 3 pointer of his own to tie the score again, 98-98, with only 1:21 remaining.
UNC failed to score on its next offensive set when Joel Berry missed a jump shot with 1:06 remaining, but the Cats could not regain the momentum and lost the rebound to UNC’s Isaiah Hicks. UNC reset its offense, and Justin Jackson got free inside for a layup, lifting the Tar Heels back into the lead, 100-98, with only 0:47 remaining. Isaiah Briscoe fouled Jackson on the play, and Jackson had an opportunity to extend this late lead to a daunting 3 points. However, Jackson missed the critical free throw, but as occurred earlier, the Cats failed to secure the rebound, giving the Tar Heels yet another opportunity to run their offense, now up by 2 with only 0:47 remaining.
UNC ran their offense for 19 seconds before Joel Berry broke free inside for what appeared to be the knockout blow, but he missed the layup, and the Cats raced down the floor with a sense of revival. De’Aaron Fox drove the ball, kicked to Malik Monk outside the arc on the left side in front of the Kentucky bench. Coach Calipari clearly directing his star to drive the ball to either tie the score or get fouled, but Malik Monk, who had already scored 44 of his team’s 98 points faked a move to the basket, stepped back behind the arc and rose. With only 22 seconds remaining, the Malik Monk three pointer fell through the net to lift the Cats back into the lead, 101-100.
In such a game involving over 200 points already scored, and the ball in UNC’s hands for what could be the final possession of this game, a 1 point lead does not represent a knockout blow, but the dagger clearly came close to the Tar Heel heart. The Tar Heels ran their offense, just as they had for 39 minutes and 38 seconds, and that offense produced a shot for Isaiah Hicks from close range. He missed, and Wenyen Gabriel secured the rebound and quickly delivered the ball to De’Aaron Fox. Joel Berry quickly fouled De’Aaron Fox with only 3 seconds remaining in this final round of this heavy weight championship fight. De’Aaron Fox cooly made both of his shots from the line to lift the Cats into a 3 point lead, 103-100.
Despite what many believed was the final dagger of this fight, the Tar Heels had other ideas. An inbounds pass to the mid-court area allowed North Carolina to take a timeout with about 2 seconds left. On the next inbounds pass, De’Aaron Fox intercepted the ball, but unable to retain possession and stay inbounds, UNC got the ball again from the side court in front of the UNC bench with about 1 second remaining. UNC got the ball inbound to Luke Maye in the corner, and his potential game tying 3 pointer from the right corner missed the mark. Cats win! Cats win! Cats win!
This game represents why college basketball is so popular. It represents how this game should be played. Some question whether either team played any defense, given that they scored 203 points between the teams, and both teams reached the sacred 100-point mark. However, my aging eyes saw a hugely different kind of game. Both teams played defense throughout the game, and each team made incredible plays in the face of that defense.
Games like this are incredibly rare to college basketball. The last such game involving a UK team like this one that I can remember was the 1992 NCAA Elite 8 game against Duke, nearly 25 years ago. In that one, UK played well enough to win, but Duke got the “W” on an incredible shot at the end. Yes, UNC played well enough to have won this heavy weight bout, as did the Cats. The Cats ended on top on the strength of an incredible shot at the end.
How does any team top the drama from this game? Well, on Wednesday evening it could happen all over again because it is time for the 2016 version of Cats and Cards.
Yes, Cats – Cards; 2016. This year, this on-going grudge fight will happen in Louisville’s Yum Center. There is a long, long history that defines this annual war, and you can review that entire history at the following link:
Suffice it to restate the obvious; these teams do not like one another, and that itself is an understatement of huge proportion. While the Cats prepared for this war with the afore discussed heavy weight bout against North Carolina in Las Vegas, the Cards tuned up for this fight against the Eastern Kentucky University Colonels, coasting to a 31 point win, 87-56. UL enters the game with a 10-1 record while the Cats left Las Vegas sporting a 10-1 record. #11 Baylor handed the Cards their only loss, by 3 points on a neutral court, while the Cats’ only loss occurred at Rupp Arena at the hands of #10 UCLA by 5 points. The Cards’ most impressive wins have been by 10 over #26 Wichita State at a neutral location and by 7 over #13 Purdue at the Yum Center. The Cats’ most impressive win this season was on Saturday over #6 UNC by 3.
Louisville enters this game with an ANE of 0.291 points per possession against a strength of schedule of 0.0269 ppp. The Cats enter this game with an ANE of 0.315 ppp against a strength of schedule of -0.0162 ppp. The ANE analysis indicates a Cardinal win by 3 points, 76-73 at a pace of 77 possessions. This would produce game efficiencies of 0.951 ppp and 0.990 ppp. Pomeroy sees this game in UL’s favor by 2 points, 80-78 at a pace of 77 possessions.
Use the following link to see how other UK fans handicap this game at 247Sports, The Cats Pause message board:
You can participate in the score prediction contest at 247Sports at the following link: