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December 14, 2013

Heels top Cats 82-77, drop UK to 1-3 away from Rupp

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It was supposed to spark memories of John Calipari's 2012 NCAA title team. It was supposed to be college basketball's best collection of talent, a team hell-bent on putting Kentucky basketball back at the top.

But after this Wildcat team's most recent loss to a ranked team -- an 82-77 setback at No. 18 North Carolina on Saturday -- Calipari instead was comparing No. 11 UK to a plucky pack of overachievers.

"I (went) through this in 2011, where I had a talented team and we just couldn't win close games, if you remember, and we lost every game and we went to a Final Four," Calipari said. "Should've won the national title."

These Cats (8-3) weren't supposed to need a late-season surge to become a powerhouse. They were supposed to hit the ground running. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason and boasting a recruiting class some considered the best ever, Kentucky was supposed to be a lion in winter, not just by spring.

But now Kentucky has lost three of its four games away from Rupp Arena and all three of its games against ranked opponents -- North Carolina joined Michigan State and Baylor in beating UK -- and on Saturday, Calipari said his is "not a good basketball team."

Players still worry too much about their individual play, he said. Rather than celebrating a team defensive stop, Calipari said, his Cats are concerned with whether they individually made a shot or gave up a basket.

And in the heat of games against high-quality opponents, the Cats can't find whatever it takes to make timely plays and critical stops. In one stretch of Saturday's second half, UK went from up 46-44 to down 54-48 by allowing Carolina baskets on six straight possessions.

Kentucky trailed by as many as eight, then trimmed the lead to a single possession, 66-63, on a pair of Andrew Harrison free throws with 4:03 to play. But missed shots around the basket and a pair of turnovers aided another Carolina run that pushed the lead back to 72-65 with 1:17 to play.

"This is kind of like the Baylor game, and I'll be honest with you, the Michigan State game," Calipari said. "You had 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 the sudden, we're in trouble. That's what they got to learn. Learning how to win."

The Tar Heels have figured it out. They have wins over three preseason top five teams and have shot a combined 55.1 percent in the second halves of those wins, against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.

UNC shot 56.7 percent in the second half against the Cats.

"I mean, we have so much talent on our team, and that's never the question when we lose," said point guard Andrew Harrison, who had 17 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers. "It's just, can we take a punch?"

So far, they can't.

At least not from quality competition.

There's time to learn, though there are no guarantees. Calipari and Kentucky never found the right mix last season, which ended in the NIT.

But that 2011 team pushed the right buttons, and that's likely why Calipari brought it up Saturday.

Though it won a tough game at Louisville, the 2011 team struggled away from Rupp Arena the rest of the regular season, came up short in hard-fought games.

By the end, it was in the national title hunt.

"Will this team do it? If they change," Calipari said. "That team came around. That team really became a good team. We were the best team in 2011 at the end. Connecticut had the best player who would go for 50. He was a really good player.

"But this is not a good team. That's the difference. This has got to become a good team, and we're gonna keep working on it, and hopefully you'll see progress."


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