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December 5, 2009LEXINGTON, Ky. - First North Carolina hit a wall, then it couldn't take enough advantage of a sitting Wall.
Kentucky's freshman point guard John Wall was as terrific as the Tar Heels were terrible in the first half before heading to the bench for a good portion of the second.
The 10th-ranked Tar Heels overcame their dismal start to pull close late but couldn't overcome the No. 5 Wildcats, who ended up with a 68-66 win at Rupp Arena.
"We got it close, but we didn't really get it over the hump," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team had three chances to tie the game inside the four-minute mark. "In the first half, they really kicked our tails."
UNC (7-2) had beaten Kentucky (8-0) each of last five seasons, but this was the first time since 2004 that both teams came into this matchup in the Associated Press Top 10.
Between that and the presence of Wall, a Raleigh, N.C., product, being the Wildcats biggest weapon, anticipation of this game was huge.
Right out of the gate, Wall delivered, and the Tar Heels did not.
The freshman had 13 points and five assists in the first half to help Kentucky to a 43-28 lead at the break.
Williams told his team at halftime that he thought they had a chance to be right back in the game, and they proved him right. They just didn't know it would be aided by the fact that Wall spent a good part of that comeback in the locker room, getting intravenous fluids to combat cramping.
"I told the coaches to just keep checking (the score) for me every two minutes," Wall said.
What Wall missed was Carolina rattling off 10 straight points early in the second half to cut the deficit to a manageable seven points.
While Wall returned just inside the 12-minute mark, the Tar Heels didn't stop fighting back and eventually pulled within three points with 4 ? minutes to go.
"We stopped hanging our heads and started believing we had a chance," Marcus Ginyard said. "And it was tough for (Kentucky) to handle."
After pulling within three, the Tar Heels missed a chance to potentially tie the game on three different possessions.
Still, it was a far better scenario for them than the first half.
It was Carolina's first true road game of the season, and it didn't take long for the Tar Heels to get a lesson in just how tough that can be.
The Heels opened the game with a 9-2 lead but that quickly turned on a 16-0 run by the Wildcats, fueled by Wall, who started the run with a dunk, then hit a reverse layup and later was on the dishing end of a transition alley-oop dunk by Patrick Patterson that got Rupp Arena rocking.
That first scoring streak was just the beginning. After a Larry Drew II layup snapped UNC's scoreless skid, Kentucky continued pouring in buckets until they had a 19-point advantage.
The 28-2 run that built that lead with a little less than nine minutes remaining in the first half was reminiscent of when Syracuse started the second half of its win against Carolina with a 22-1 surge - also in a loud building with a hostile crowd in a marquee game.
"Maybe guys kind of got a little intimidated or froze up," Drew said. "There were 24,000 fans cheering against us. We've got to keep our composure."
UNC went nearly eight minutes without a 2-point field goal in the first half, instead relying on the three to stay remotely in the game. With six minutes remaining in the first half, Carolina had as many 3-pointers (four) as 2-pointers.
The Tar Heels also didn't get to the free-throw line until Deon Thompson earned a trip with less than four minutes to go in the first half. With just four assists against 11 turnovers, it was no wonder things weren't going well offensively for UNC.
The Tar Heels 28 first-half points were the fewest points they had scored in a half since the infamous debacle against Kansas in the Final Four in 2008.
"We weren't very patient in the first half," Williams said. "When Kentucky's defense became more aggressive, we panicked."
The fact that the Tar Heels responded was certainly a reason for them to leave here without being completely disappointed.
But the fact that they dug the hole they did in such a big game was still a source of frustration.
"Against Gardner-Webb, against Valpo, if you don't execute, you may be able to get away with it," Ginyard said. "Against team like Kentucky, it's going to get ugly."