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No. 19 Kentucky earned its biggest win of the 2018-19 season with a 80-72 victory Saturday over No. 9 North Carolina.
Keldon Johnson scored 23 while Reid Travis added 20 for the Wildcats in the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago. They improved to 9-2, although this was the first victory of the year over a ranked opponent.
UNC was coming off an impressive victory over Gonzaga, but the team fell to 8-3 despite 17 points from Cameron Johnson.
Defensive Effort Will Dictate Kentucky’s Success
Kentucky is usually known for its elite freshmen, but elite defense is often the defining characteristic on John Calipari‘s best teams.
This year’s squad has rarely played great defensively, ranking just 53rd in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. Giving up 118 points in a season-opening loss to Duke hurt these numbers, but this was also a problem in its 84-83 loss to Seton Hall.
However, North Carolina entered Saturday averaging 94.3 points per game and struggled to find the same success against Kentucky.
The focus was there from the start, which Seth Greenberg of ESPN noted at halftime:
Seth Greenberg @SethOnHoops
Most consistent defensive intensity and discipline @KentuckyMBB has had all season.
Ashton Hagans was especially impressive making plays all over the court:
CBS Sports @CBSSports
Ashton Hagans on defense: steal
Ashton Hagans on offense: set up the alley-oop https://t.co/EVPErFmPwJ
The freshman finished with seven points but made his biggest contributions on defense with seven steals and three blocks to go with excellent on-ball defense.
Kentucky took a nine-point lead at halftime thanks to its elite defense, which forced North Carolina 10 turnovers. The lead dwindled in the second half at times when the Tar Heels got tough shots to fall, but they couldn’t sustain a run against the Wildcats defense.
With nine blocks and 11 steals over the course of the game, Kentucky was playing as well as it could on that side of the ball.
The Wildcats are now 8-0 this season when allowing fewer than 80 points, and this could be a trend that continues throughout the year.
If they can keep up this type of intensity all year, Kentucky will be a tough team to beat.
North Carolina Needs Balanced Scoring to Match Top Opponents
Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye combined for 45 points in the upset win over Gonzaga, but it was far from a two-man effort. Six players finished with at least nine points, include a career-high 14 from Seventh Woods off the bench.
The seniors were solid once again against Kentucky, combining for 33 points and 10 rebounds, but the difference in this game was the lack of production from the rest of the team.
Freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little were especially disappointing with just 12 total points on 5-of-19 shooting from the field. Overall, the squad had just 13 points from the bench.
This, along with 17 turnovers, prevented North Carolina from keeping up on the scoreboard against Kentucky.
Johnson was nowhere to be seen in the loss to Michigan, while White was the only reliable player in the loss to Texas. Maye was also inefficient in these two games.
Against inferior opponents, North Carolina will likely only need one or two of these players to have a good game to get a win. However, it won’t match up with top competition, especially in the ACC, unless everyone is playing to expectations.
It would also help if Kenny Williams and Garrison Brooks provided more a lift.
The Tar Heels won’t have much margin for error against top teams, but on the plus side, they still have enough upside to beat anyone in the country.
Kentucky will go on the road Saturday for a rivalry battle against Louisville. The schedule finally gets a bit easier for North Carolina, which will have a week off before facing Davidson at home.