Kentucky holds off North Carolina

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:16 PM ET

TORONTO - Better late than never.

A year after a group of star-studded Kentucky freshmen bombed out in the Elite Eight, Big Blue is back in the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

Brandon Knight, who replaced superstar John Wall at the controls for John Calipari’s Wildcats, scored 22 points in Kentucky’s 76-69 win over North Carolina on Sunday night in Newark, N.J.

The Tar Heels battled back from an 11-point second-half deficit but junior DeAndre Liggins stepped up for the Wildcats in the clutch with a huge block on UNC point guard Kendall Marshall and a three at the other end in the final minute.

No. 4 Kentucky will meet No. 3 Connecticut — shockingly the highest remaining seed — in the Final Four in Houston on Saturday.

No. 8 Butler meets No. 11 VCU in the other game.

Carolina was denied a chance to tie Kentucky for most wins in tournament history but still had a successful season considering it missed the tourney entirely a year ago.

Last year, future first-round picks Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton could not get by West Virginia, so Calipari did what he does best, recruit another batch of studs to replace them.

His new freshman trio of Knight, Terrence Jones (11 points, seven rebounds) and Doron Lamb (eight points) can’t match the previous groups’ talent, but will give one of basketball’s premier programs a decent chance at taking home its first title since Toronto’s Jamaal Magloire helped it turn the trick 13 years ago.

“We lost five first-round draft picks and everyone wants to say you can’t win with young players,” Calipari said.

“I say if it is experience or talent and I have a choice, I’m taking talent and we will figure out how to make them play together, how to get them to defend, how to increase their toughness. How they have to play to win ballgames, I’ll deal with that.”

The matchup pitted the two best players in high school basketball last season, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes against Knight.

It was Knight who had the big edge early and late, though Barnes showed why he was so heavily hyped coming into this season during one brilliant 45 second stretch where he scored eight points and brought UNC back from the brink.

Still, the biggest flaw in both of their games was on display most of the night as both took an assortment of poor attempts.

Trailing by four, Barnes tried to draw a foul on Jones on an ill-advised three-point attempt, but the refs didn’t bite and Carolina was sunk.

Barnes shot just 7-for-19 for the game, 2-for-9 from deep in an 18 point, six-rebound performance. Knight was 7-for-18, but nailed 5-of-11 crucial three-point attempts summing up the difference between the two squads. Kentucky hit 12-of-22 from three, UNC just 3-of-16.

Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with his fourth straight excellent tournament performance, scoring 21 points and nine rebounds but the third standout member of coach Roy Williams’ frontcourt, John Henson, was missing in action because of foul trouble. The big man was held to four points and did not block a shot after terrorizing opponents with his reach and jumping ability all season.

Calipari packed the floor with shooters negating UNC’s size and athleticism edge.

Prior to Liggins’ heroics, Knight edged Barnes one more time after Zeller had tied the game for the first time since very early.

Knight responded with a three and Barnes missed one of his own.

“Sometimes when you get there you can’t get over the hump,” said Tar Heels coach Williams afterwards.

“And Brandon Knight made it hard for us to get it over the hump.”

His counterpart, Calipari, has now taken three teams to the Final Four.

“It got late, they tied it up, and we didn’t back away,” Calipari said.

“There were a couple of times I thought about calling timeouts and I did not want my guys to think that I didn’t believe in them.

“I wanted them to play through it. It was just a great dogfight kind of game.”

ryan.wolstat@sunmedia.ca


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