LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Surprised. That’s how Tyler Zeller felt.
Shocked. That’s how John Henson felt.
Stunned. That’s how Kendall Marshall felt.
And it’s really the only explanation North Carolina’s players had as to why, with five precious ticks left on the Rupp Arena clock Saturday -- in a game where every play, every possession, every second seemed to matter -- no one thought to foul.
“I just knew we were going to win this game,’’ a still-stunned Marshall said after his fifth-ranked Tar Heels lost to top-ranked Kentucky 73-72. “I had that feeling, ‘we’re going to make this shot’ and I think it took me a second to realize what had happened. It took everyone a second to realize what had happened … and as a team, I think we thought time had run out.”
In a way, you can’t blame them. It’s not every day you see 6-foot-11 UNC junior John Henson, who has used his 7-foot-4 reach to steadily push his way up the school’s all-time blocks charts, have one swatted back at him.
It’s not every day they play in such a frenetic, close, classic game more worthy of April’s opening weekend than a nonconference tune-up in early December.
“Before the game if you’d say, ‘one of your guys is going to have a 10- or 12-footer at the end to win the game,’ most people who come into Rupp Arena would probably take that,” said Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Although most Tar Heels fans will probably always wonder, "What could they have done in those last five seconds?"
Especially because this game, featuring a dozen potential future first-round draft picks, was everything it was billed to be -- a duel of runs and comebacks, bruises and trash talk, missed dunks and made 3-pointers. Carolina, though outrebounded yet again, led by as many as nine points in the first half on the strength of its outside shooting (11-of-18 from behind the arc for the game).
But no lead was ever safe.
Not with the Wildcats holding the Tar Heels to 34.5 percent shooting in the second half, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist recording a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) and Doron Lamb burying clutch shots when UK needed them the most (most notably, during a 13-4 run that gave the Wildcats a 69-64 lead with 3:47 left).
A 3-pointer by UNC sophomore Harrison Barnes (14 points), two clutch free throws by Henson (10 points, eight rebounds) and a 3-pointer by Reggie Bullock (8 points, 5 rebounds) put the Tar Heels in striking distance again, though -- particularly after UK’s Marquis Teague missed the front end of a one-and-one with 21 seconds left.
Trailing by a point, Williams said the team had several options: get the ball to Zeller, have Marshall drive, or look for a jump shot. Marshall chose to aim for Zeller, who from the point guard’s perspective had his defender sealed and had the highest-percentage shot.
But once the senior 7-footer got the ball, he was double-teamed, and “somehow,” he said, “it got deflected out of my hands.”
Henson was there to grab it and try to put up his own game-winning jumper -- until the 6-foot-10 Davis left Zeller and stretched out to get a hand on the UNC junior’s shot, as well.
“I thought I was open,’’ Henson said. “It was a little taste of my own medicine, which is kind of funny. But I’ve done that before, and he did it to me this game. Credit to him, he made a great play.”
So great that none of the Tar Heels thought to look at the clock.
“It’s crazy to think, you’re 18, 19, 20, 21 years old -- and I knew we would foul. I’m screaming ‘foul’ … but we didn’t,’’ Williams said. “And the bottom line is, I need to do a better job coaching them, because we need to have some play like that. We need to be able to make a foul.”
Because this is the type of game where it could have made a difference.
“It was just one of those things where it’s late in the game, and you were shocked, and you have a lapse," Zeller said. “And we have to be better at that.”
Or risk being surprised and shocked and stunned, again.
Briefly: Freshman reserve P.J. Hairston, questionable for the game because of a sprained left wrist, finished with 11 points and made 3 of 4 3-point attempts. ... Williams said he hopes the series will continue, and that he and UK coach John Calipari will discuss it.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.