CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — With less than a minute to go and the outcome all but certain on Saturday, the white-out crowd at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. started chanting at the Kentucky Wildcats, “O-ver-ra-ted!” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. “O-ver-ra-ted!” Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.
The chant, as senseless as it may be for the home crowd, may carry some weight with the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. After an 82-77 loss to No. 18/21 North Carolina, UK’s third loss in 11 games to open the season, John Calipari is likely hoping it strikes a chord with a young bunch he says isn’t a very good team right now.
“We’re not a good team because our emotion is based on individual play instead of our team play,” Coach Cal said.
It’s a talented team no doubt, one that looks to be getting tougher after Calipari questioned his players’ fight in the loss to Baylor. But for as much as the Wildcats battled a hostile crowd of 21,750 and fought back when UNC threatened to bury them, No. 11/10 Kentucky’s losing plays – like missed free throws (14 of them) and turnovers (17 of those) – were still too much for the Cats’ fight to overcome.
“We were playing well and then we just have points in the game where we stop playing, and one or two plays make up the game,” said freshman guard Andrew Harrison, who played one of his best games as a Wildcat with 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
The games turn, Calipari said, when players start worrying about individual plays like a shot they missed or getting beat on the dribble instead of focusing on the bigger picture. Instead of forgetting a mistake and concentrating on the team, individuals are letting one poor play affect the next.
“I thought we did enough to keep ourselves in the game and then gave ourselves a chance to win,” Coach Cal said. “You have a chance to win this game and you lose it all in that one span of three minutes, and then when you look back it was an effort play, it was a team play. You broke down on our team and then you came back and followed up with this. Now all of a sudden we’re in trouble. That’s what they gotta learn.”
UK fell to 1-3 away from Rupp Arena and 0-3 vs. ranked teams.
The latest loss left the Cats questioning themselves. After all, this was a team that boasted such a powerful recruiting class that fans and pundits wondered at the beginning of the season if it could go undefeated.
Nonsense like that is no longer a topic of conversation. Just getting wins in a difficult stretch of games is all Kentucky can be focused on after another disheartening loss.
“We have so much talent on our team, and that’s never the question when we lose,” Harrison said. “It’s just, can we take a punch?”
At times on Saturday the Cats looked like they could.
In front of that raucous white-out crowd at the Dean Smith Center, UK opened the game with a 19-12 lead. Aaron Harrison was rolling early, the defense was stifling, and UNC, without guards J.P. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, looked to be overmatched on the perimeter.
But then the fouls started piling up.
First it was Aaron Harrison who picked up two. Then it was James Young, quickly followed by Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein.
At the end of the first half, Aaron Harrison, Young and Randle all had two fouls, and Johnson and Cauley-Stein were both saddled with three. Cauley-Stein picked up his third with 1.9 seconds before halftime, a call Calipari was so enraged about that he picked up his first technical of the season.
UNC went to the line and made three of the four free throws, turning a tied game at the half – what would have been a remarkable feat for UK given the foul trouble – into a 33-30 UNC lead.
Nonetheless, Kentucky was right in it. With a renewed emphasis on getting Andrew Harrison to the hoop, UK got into the bonus within the first five minutes of the second half by forcing UNC into committing seven quick fouls.
“You had a team that came at us physically,” Calipari said. “We couldn’t even get open on the wings. They fought us in the post. We couldn’t throw post passes. We ended up going down to a pick-and-roll trying to create, and the only thing we were creating was a shot for the point guard.”
UK retook the lead at 40-39, but the scoring advantage would be short lived.
A careless pass by Andrew Harrison that Marcus Paige took the other way for a transition layup changed the momentum. Paige’s bucket gave North Carolina a 48-46 lead, and even after Calipari called timeout, the Tar Heels stretched it to 62-54.
“We had a couple passes stolen because guys came off a screen nonchalantly like the other guy’s not playing,” Coach Cal said. “He steals it and he’s mad at the guy who passed it. That’s why I called a timeout. It’s like the wide receiver, you know what I’m saying. He goes this way and the quarterback throws it to the middle and the quarterback runs down and talks to him like to make sure everybody knows that he was wrong. ‘That wasn’t my pick.’ You can’t do that. You can’t be a good team. We got a lot of that kind of stuff that we gotta clean up.”
Kentucky refused to go away as North Carolina clanked numerous opportunities at the free-throw line (26 of 45), but the Cats could never come back all the way. On multiple occasions in the closing minutes, UK allowed North Carolina to grab offensive rebounds after potentially important misses.
“Two free throws they miss and they get them both,” Calipari said. “Wait a minute, the game’s in the balance. We grab this and make a 3, we can win the game. It’s all stuff we’re still learning.”
Aaron Harrison led UK with 20 points and Young chipped in with 16, but they were outdone by Paige (23 points), James Michael McAdoo (20 points and 19 free throws attempted) and J.P. Tokoto (15 points).
Julius Randle, who made no secret this week that he was excited to play in the battle of the blue bloods, had his worst game as a Wildcat. He scored 11 points, but he grabbed just five rebounds and turned the ball over four times.
“Maybe too excited,” Calipari said, “because McAdoo made a statement.”
Coach Cal said he’s been down this road before with some of his previous teams, noting the 2010-11 bunch that lost six Southeastern Conference games before making a surprise Final Four run. But the difference between that team and this group, Calipari said, is this one isn’t a cohesive unit yet.
He suggested these players may need to get “knocked in the teeth” a couple more times before they can accept responsibility, realize they have to do this together and stop focusing on individual play.
“I’m going to keep coaching them,” Calipari said. “We’re going to keep getting better. We’re going to try to point things out. But it doesn’t matter how bad I want them to get it, they gotta want it. They gotta want to get this. They gotta want to understand this.”
Tickets available for upcoming home games; Louisville sold out