LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky ended its shooting slump just in time to beat North Carolina, and the big shot belonged to Gerald Fitch.
Fitch scored 21 points and made a clinching 3-pointer with 23 seconds left, helping No. 8 Kentucky defeat the No. 9 Tar Heels 61-56 on Saturday.
“I feel like I’m going to make bigger shots than this one,” Fitch said.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams likes that kind of attitude.
“I love college basketball and kids,” he said. “The feeling that Gerald Fitch has is what we wanted to have in our locker room.”
Kentucky (9-1) rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit and downed North Carolina (8-2) for the fourth straight season.
Erik Daniels added 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats, who shot 55 percent in the second half after shooting 26 percent in the opening half.
The Wildcats combined to shoot 37 percent in their previous two games, a loss to Louisville and a lackluster win over Austin Peay.
Kentucky committed only three turnovers after halftime.
“We weren’t focusing on turnovers; we were focusing on energy level,” Fitch said. “In the first half shots weren’t falling, but we stayed with it.”
The game was a matchup between the schools that rank 1-2 in career wins in Division I—Kentucky at 1,858 and North Carolina at 1,816.
North Carolina’s only other loss this season came in triple overtime to No. 6 Wake Forest.
North Carolina led 35-26 with 15:43 left. Kentucky used an 11-2 run to pull even and took the lead for good with 10:53 to go on a basket by Daniels that made it 43-41. The Tar Heels drew to 57-56 on a 3-pointer by Raymond Felton with 56 seconds left.
“Honestly, I thought they were going to miss and we would come down and win the game,” Williams said.
But with the shot clock at 3, Fitch hit a 3-pointer—his fifth of the game—to restore Kentucky’s lead to four points. North Carolina turned the ball over on its next possession, and Kentucky’s Cliff Hawkins made one of two free throws with 14.5 seconds left.
“That was a big-time 3, after they had knocked down a 3 at the other end,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “We were so happy to see him make that three and give us a little cushion at the end.”
Melvin Scott scored 16 points and Felton added 11 for North Carolina. The Tar Heels lost despite the return of two starters, May and Jawad Williams. They missed North Carolina’s previous game, a 105-72 win over Coastal Carolina, because of an ankle injury and a concussion.
“We didn’t look like a very well-coached team today,” Roy Williams said. “I could see Williams and May hadn’t practiced, but to say that is just a bunch of excuses.”
Rashad McCants, North Carolina’s leading scorer at 19 points per game, scored 4 points, and Smith credited the defense of Kelenna Azubuike. Two little-used bench players, Ravi Moss and Bernard Cote, contributed in their extended playing time.
Scott made three 3-pointers and scored 11 points in the first half, which ended with North Carolina up 28-20. The Tar Heels’ lead could have been larger if they had not committed 11 turnovers. They finished the game with 20 turnovers.
North Carolina is 16-10 against Kentucky. Before the current Kentucky streak, the Tar Heels had won six in a row against the Wildcats.