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Saturday, December 3, 2011
North Carolina-Kentucky demands rematch

By Eamonn Brennan


"Let's run that back."

At the gym, that's all it would take. Both teams would grab a drink of water, check the ball up top, and begin again.

Unfortunately, college basketball doesn't work that way. Alas, we won't get an immediate rematch of the thrilling 40 minutes to which we were just treated, a game that ended as a 73-72 Kentucky win over North Carolina when the clock expired (under questionable circumstances, which we'll get to in a second) in front of a bananas Rupp Arena crowd in Lexington, Ky. The best we can hope for is that these teams meet again in the spring, whether in the Final Four, or the national title game, or even -- who knows? -- maybe a little earlier.

Because make no mistake: If any game we've seen so far this season deserves a rematch, it's this one. Count the reasons:
  1. According to Chad Ford's 2012 top 100 draft list, there were six prospective lottery picks and eight first-round choices on the floor at any given time Saturday afternoon.
  2. It lived up to that talent, and all the hype that accompanied it -- no game this season has been played at such a high level and with such entertainment value to boot.
  3. It ended in the strangest of ways. Marquis Teague was the beneficiary of a really soft foul call on UNC, which sent him to the line up 73-72 with 21 seconds left in the game. Teague missed the front end of the one-and-one. North Carolina set up a quick post entry to Tyler Zeller, who had it stripped in the paint. The ball flew into John Henson's hands on the baseline. With nine seconds left -- probably too early, but Henson seemed to have an open look -- the lanky forward shot a jumper ... which was spectacularly blocked by equally lanky UK freshman forward Anthony Davis. That's when things got really weird. Davis grabbed the ball and swallowed it up, and instead of fouling immediately -- there were about five seconds left when Davis was standing immobile with the ball -- the Tar Heels, seemingly shell-shocked, just left Davis alone. By the time UNC realized it had to foul, Davis had dumped the ball to Teague. The controversy didn't end there -- Teague traveled in celebration before the clock had expired. There was barely any time left, but by all rights, UNC should have had another possession.

Throw in the timeout UNC coach Roy Williams left on the board, which he could have taken at any time in UNC's final possession, and it's safe to say this game didn't end nearly as well as it was played. And it was still decided on the narrowest of margins.

Yeah, we have to see this one again.

The questions abound. What would this game look like on a neutral floor? Or in Chapel Hill? How will Kentucky's defense -- already the best unit in the country efficiency-wise but one that let UNC's shooters run free for the entire first half -- improve as the season goes along? Can Harrison Barnes (14 points on 5-of-12 for the field) score efficiently against defenses that can match his combination of size and perimeter proficiency? Can UNC figure out how to get the most out of its hot shooting reserve guards -- P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock combined to shoot 5-of-9 from 3, and every shot felt like a big one -- without losing the defensive ability of starting guard Dexter Strickland?

This was a great win for Kentucky -- a great, great win -- in a tight and well-played Dec. 3 game. But it's only Dec. 3. There's no telling what this game might look like in the NCAA tournament.

It's too bad we have to wait that long. The good news? If Saturday is any indication, we can take solace in knowing at least one thing: This rematch is bound to happen. It may be March 31. It may be April 2. But it'll happen eventually.

If only we could run it back right now.