Freshmen Lead No. 14 Kentucky Past No. 9 North Carolina
It was billed as a game between experience and talented youth. No. 9 North Carolina had a ton of experience, with players like RJ Davis and Armando Bacot. No. 14 Kentucky had its super-talented freshman class.
In the end, it was the talented freshmen from Kentucky who not only prevailed, but who handled the pressure down the stretch in an 87-83 win over North Carolina in Atlanta.
Kentucky’s last eight points, and 18 of its last 20, were scored by freshmen. Rob Dillingham came off the bench to lead UK with 17 points. Fellow freshman D.J. Wagner had 14, while classmate Aaron Bradshaw had 12. Reed Sheppard came off the bench to score 11. Add the eight points from Justin Edwards and Kentucky’s freshmen accounted for 62 of UK’s 87 points.
Kentucky (8-2) got out of the gates quickly behind Bradshaw, who scored five of UK’s first nine. The Cats would lead 11-4 early before Carolina scored four straight. The Cats would score the next six and would soon establish a 20-10 lead.
The Cats would go up by 11 at 24-13 on a Wagner layup. But after building the double-digit advantage, the Cats went cold. UK missed 10 shots in a row and had a stretch where it only made one out of 12 shots. However, the Cats were able to maintain the lead and that stretch came to an end on a Reed Sheppard jumper in the lane.
That was the first of three consecutive made shots for the Cats that gave UK a 10-point advantage, 37-27 with 4:27 left in the first half. UK would lead 40-30 with 2:45 left in the half but North Carolina scored the final eight points of the half to cut the UK advantage to 40-38 at the break.
Carolina tied the game for the first time early in the second half on a Cormac Ryan layup but Kentucky answered with seven in a row, staring with a Wagner three. After Ryan hit a three for the Tar Heels, UK scored the next eight, including threes from Reeves and Dillingham, to lead 55-43 with 15:23 to play.
The Tar Heels answered with six in a row in what would become a second half trend. The Cats would start to pull away but Carolina would make a run of it’s own. All the while, Kentucky never gave up the lead. Until UNC’s Armando Bacot hit a pair of free throws with 5:15 to play, giving the Tar Heels a 72-71 advantage.
That lead lasted exactly 16 seconds. Kentucky responded with layups from Bradshaw, and Dillingham twice, to lead 77-72 with 3:52 to play.
North Carolina would be able to climb within a single point once more, 81-80. From there, the Cats were able to make enough plays and hit enough free throws to hang on for the win. And it might not have been the same without this talented group of freshmen.