By the Numbers...
This was supposed to be a match-up of stud freshmen guards, Kendall Marshall for North Carolina versus Brandon Knight for Kentucky, but though Knight took the pg spot on the All-Region team and the Region MVP award, it was not the Kentucky freshman who drew his UNC counterpart on defense. That task went to junior DeAndre Liggins who received a rare start over freshman Doron Lamb, one of several Friday-to-Sunday adjustments Kentucky Coach John Calipari made as preparation for the Regional Final. When the final buzzer sounded Kentucky had earned the last ticket to Houston, affirmed by their 76-69 win over the University of North Carolina. How did the highest remaining seed (a #2, OSU having fallen Friday night) get sent home? The breakdown by halves...
The possession-based stats confirm what everyone who watched knew -- though the game was played at a pace comfortable for the Tar Heels, Coach Roy Williams' North Carolina squad had a terrible first half. UNC's first half offense encountered three problems...
1. Turnover rate of 24.5%, the first half provided fewer scoring opportunities than expected for an offense that typically yields 1.12 points per possession.
2. Field goal attempts did not fall -- note the highlighted (yellow) eFG%; 40.0% is not fatal, but coupled with a
3. A surprisingly modest offensive rebound rate meant that misses on the first try ended tallied as empty trips. The rebounding fall off was all the more surprising given the presence of John Henson and Tyler Zeller, two players ranked (#90 & #235 respectively) in Ken Pomeroy's Top 500 Offensive Rebounders.
The Wildcats took an eight point cushion (38-30) into the intermission, and North Carolina spent much of the second half in a four-to-eleven point limbo, their runs slowed by multiple empty trips...uncharacteristic for the Tar Heels this season.
Neutralizing the Front Court Edge
Coach Calipari, from the post game press conference:
What we were doing with Zeller was we were meeting him early so he couldn't bury you under the basket...the second thing we did on the right side facing the court, if he's on that side we were going to trap big to big. The left side we were digging guards, they were digging down, that's what we tried to do...
Through much of the first half the gameplan worked. Zeller was limited under the basket (when he managed to get position, he was effective) as Harrellson was effective shunting him to one side of the lane or the other. And when he faded to the right side...
Tyler Zeller (44) doubled by Josh Harrellson (55 - right)
and Terrence Jones (3 - left). Zeller does not have a clear pass to
John Henson, whose left arm is visible
above Harrellson's head. Unlike Marquette's Davante Gardener Friday,
Jones moved decisively to double Zeller. The pass was picked off
The Wildcats were also helped immensely by Henson's absence. The junior forward was whistled for his second foul at 10:07 of the first half. To that point Henson had five rebounds (1-4), and Coach Williams decided to leave him in. The gamble backfired as Henson was tagged with his third foul about 3:30 minutes (and two rebounds) later. Henson sat for the balance of the first half (about 6:39 minutes) and played for about four minutes of the second half before picking up foul number four. Henson returned to the bench for about nine more minutes before Coach Williams had to put him back in. Henson fouled out with less than 20 seconds on the clock, but the sophomore, who logged nearly 1,000 minutes during the season and played for 32 minutes Friday against Marquette, played just 24 minutes against Kentucky. He gathered nine rebounds and scored four points in his 24 minutes of playing time, versus 12 rebounds, 14 points and five blocks versus Marquette. For the season, Henson averaged 10.1 rebounds and 11.7 points per outing.
The First Five Minutes
From Josh Harrellson's post game comments...
...the first five minutes of each half really dictates the game. You always want to come out and play strong and...we played aggressive, played together as a team and that really dictates what's going to happen throughout the first half...I think we did a good job coming out and dictating the whole game and running our stuff and keeping them out of their basketball game.
A breakdown of the box score confirms the senior forward assertion...
The Wildcats had a five point advantage coming out of those first five minutes of the game. They stretched it by three more points over the last 15 minutes of the first half. The Tar Heels managed to drop another point behind the Wildcats over the first five minutes of the second half, setting the score at 47-38. And through the balance of the second half the 'Heels managed to outscore the 'Cats 31-28, but it was too little too late. Throughout the second half North Carolina was able to regain the offensive advantage, knotting the score at 67 at the 3:18 mark, but when they needed a stop on Ketucky's next possession, they could not get it. Brandon Knight hit a three point shot 20 seconds later to put the Wildcats on top for good. Through the end of the game, Kentucky outscored North Carolina 9-2, scoring on four of those last five possessions.
The Back Benchers
When asked about getting the starting nod over freshman Doron Lamb, junior DeAndre Liggins seemed nonchalant, "It wasn't...(a) big deal to me. Coach say he is going to start me, no disrespect to Doron...we play six guys, so it doesn't matter. And Doron came out and hit some shots for us to help us out..." The motivation for starting the game with Kentucky's best defensive player on the floor was intended as a game changer, but Liggins, at 6-6 often found himself guarding a taller wing, rather than the assignment he drew Sunday -- UNC's freshman guard Kendall Marshall. "...DeAndre was going to pick up the ball to try to slow down Marshall, because if Marshall had his way I thought it would be a problem..." Calipari explained, "Because I think he's (Marshall) changed their team and I think he's a terrific basketball player. And I thought that DeAndre could stunt off of him and stunt and dig into the post. And just try to bother him..." Calipari finished with a modest "...I don't know if it did (work)...", but the 6-3 Marshall shot converted 2-10 from the field, including a brutal 1-5 from beyond the arc. Although he managed to dish eight dimes, Marshall also had three turnovers. Liggins, Harrellson and Darius Miller combined to go 12-24 from the field, including 4-7 from the three point line to score 35 of Kentucky's 76 points.
Miller (1) hits a jumper over Harrison Barnes (40)
in the 2nd half two of the eventual 11 points he scored
Calipari refered to Josh Harrellson's conditioning along with Miller and Liggins' improvement over the course of the season, several times on Friday, and returned to the topic four times in the Sunday press conference