Kentucky downs Heels, 98-81

McCants - 22 points.

CHAPEL HILL – As much as the first five games of North Carolina's 2002-03 season resembled nothing from last year's 8-20 unit, the last two have. <br><br>Kentucky, behind a trio of 20-plus-point scorers, took advantage of UNC's nonexistent interior defense as well as a plethora of open 3-pointers and pounded the Tar Heels, 98-81, before a sellout crowd of 21,750 at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday.

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The Wildcats (4-1) shot an amazing 60.3 percent (35-58) from the field, including 23-28 in the second half on mostly layups or 3s. In fact, the Wildcats were 5-8 from beyond the arc in each half, and scored on four offensive rebounds in the final 20 minutes.

"We came out and didn't execute, didn't play great defense," said freshman point guard Raymond Felton. "They made a run, and just kept the lead. They kept their composure and we didn't."

Overall, UK scored on 27 of its 35 second-half possessions.

Foul trouble on key Tar Heels certainly didn't help the home team's cause. Felton picked up his fourth personal just 2:55 into the second period.

"Not really," Felton said when asked if his defense was affected after being whistled for foul number four. "Coach (Matt Doherty) sat me down for a while so I wouldn't get my other foul, but I came back in with the same intensity. You can't just lie down because you have four fouls. You have to be careful, but you gotta have the same intensity."

Rashad McCants, who didn't commit a foul in the first half, racked up four in the first 14:01 of the final half. Sean May, a freshman like Felton and McCants, played much of the game in foul trouble, picking up his third with 19:27 left in the contest.

"It affected me a lot," said May (14 points, 10 rebounds). "I should have been more aggressive, but I didn't want to pick up that fourth one. I thought all of my fouls tonight were cheap – I shouldn't have gotten any of them. The third one was a big one, and I didn't want to pick up that fourth one, he (Marquis Estill) beared me in and hit some shots, and I think he had only two points (actually, zero) going into the second half and he ended up with 20."

Most notable was May's inability to be as aggressive as usual, and the result was too many mostly uncontested layups and lightly contested jump hooks in the final period.

"We shouldn't blame it on foul trouble," said sophomore guard Melvin Scott. "We should go out and play hard every defensive play. But indirectly it did matter, because guys maybe were a bit more tentative on defense, (especially) with four fouls."

Trailing 45-44 with 18:32 left, Kentucky exploded for a 14-0 run on a jumper by Gerald Fitch, a put-back by Estill, a layup by Estill, a 3-pointer by Fitch, a short jumper by Fitch after a UNC turnover, and a 3 by Fitch to take a 58-45 lead with 16 minutes remaining.

UNC (5-2) got as close as 63-55 with 13:32 left, but seemingly every time the Tar Heels scored, UK had an answer, and eventually built a 79-62 lead with 7:25 remaining. But Carolina managed to carve four points off the margin – 85-72 - after McCants rammed home a jam after a steal, but just like that the quick-striking 'Cats pulled away.

"I'm disappointed with our defense in the second half," an unhappy Doherty said. "We've been bragging about out defense, there's been a lot to talk about our defense, but we certainly didn't play defense in this game."

Fitch, a junior, led Kentucky with 25 points, while Keith Bogans, a senior, added 20, and Estill, also a senior, finished with 20. Chuck Hayes, a sophomore, added 16 for Tubby Smith's club.

McCants led UNC with 22 points and Felton added 18 points and seven assists. Williams had eight points but only four rebounds and six turnovers.

Kentucky opened up a quick 8-0 lead to start the game as the Tar Heels went scoreless for the first 4:08 of the contest. But UNC clawed its way to a 20-20 tie on a 3-pointer by Jonathan Holmes with 10:27 left in the half.

UNC's defense keyed the run by forcing UK to make the extra pass on the perimeter, but so did its improved spacing and ball movement on offense.

At that point, the lead changed hands eight times to go along with four ties as both squads executed well offensively – each was at or above 50 percent shooting in the first half - against quality man-to-man defense. UK was 5-8 from 3-point range in the first half, but other than treys, the 'Cats were scoring inside.

UNC, on the other hand, was scoring in various ways, including three 3s from McCants, and some impressive inside baskets by Williams and May.

"I though we did a good job moving and getting open," Williams said. "We found a lot of seams in their defense."

As the youngest team in the nation displayed their amazing potential over the first five games, they have clearly shown the other end of the spectrum this week, which also includes a 27-point loss at Illinois. And with a 12-day breaking coming up, they should learn a lot about themselves.

"Playing in games like this help let us know what we have to work on and what we have to continue to work on," Felton said.

"We have to realize now that we sort of shocked the world when we won our first five games," Williams said. "Now we have to realize we have to up our level even more now because everybody is going to give us their best shot."

After experiencing high highs and low lows, perhaps the break couldn't have come at a better time.


Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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