LEXINGTON, Ky. – By the time the basketball fortuitously found its way into John Henson's hands about 12 feet from the basket in Rupp Arena on Saturday, we'd already seen something of a December classic.
What happened then elevated the game even more.
When Henson launched his shot with about six seconds left and Kentucky leading North Carolina 73-72, the possibilities seemed cut-and-dried: It goes in and the Heels beat the No. 1 Wildcats; it comes off the rim and whoever gets the rebound probably wins.
But then a third possibility rose swiftly and desperately.
Anthony Davis, the Wildcats' endlessly long freshman big man, materialized as if through the "Star Trek" transporter beam to contest the shot. He had been covering North Carolina's Tyler Zeller in the paint, and teammate Terrence Jones had been covering Henson – and then suddenly Zeller had lost the ball and it had been batted to the 6-foot-11 Henson and he was alarmingly open.
"I seen Terrence wasn't on him," Davis said. "So I sprinted as hard as I could."
Sprinted. Elevated. And deflected the shot straight into the air. Davis then jumped a second time and grabbed the loose ball.
"Not many people will block a jump shot from John Henson," North Carolina coach Roy Williams noted.
Said Davis' teammate and classmate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: "I was surprised. I was like, 'Oh, my God!' "
North Carolina was so surprised it simply quit playing. There were about five seconds left on the clock, and not a single Heel made a move to foul Davis. They let the clock run out instead of putting the 'Cats on the line one last time, triggering a detonation of noise in Rupp that's rarely heard in early December.
"I could feel my head banging," Davis said, "it was so loud in here."
[Recap: Kentucky 73, North Carolina 72]
Carolina's failure to react in the final seconds was the last time Saturday – but certainly not the first – that the more experienced team showed less poise than the young guns.
Both teams played well, showing why they're ranked in the top five and why the arena was jammed with NBA scouts and general managers. Neither team buckled when the other hit it with runs. The biggest lead was nine points, and the biggest second-half lead was just six.
"If you weren't ready for this game," said Kentucky's Darius Miller, "you were going to get embarrassed."
It was a man's game. Yet it was won by boys.
That was the second takeaway from Saturday: The team playing three freshmen 33 or more minutes was the headier, steadier bunch. The team that didn't play a single freshman more than 15 minutes made more errors and seemed to feel more pressure.
Oh, the first takeaway? The first takeaway is that these teams are among the small group of legitimate national championship contenders and could well face off again on a much bigger stage in the spring.
"Let's hope if we have to play them again, when is it?" Kentucky coach John Calipari asked rhetorically. "The very last game of the season."
College basketball fans can wait and hope it comes down to that. In the meantime, it will be intriguing to watch the Wildcats progress – intriguing and scary if you're in the SEC.
They are far from perfect. Outside of guard Doron Lamb, the perimeter shooting is suspect. (See: 4-of-17 shooting from 3-point range against the Heels, just 2-of-14 aside from Lamb.) And if they can't drive the ball into the paint or score off lobs, the half-court offense can stagnate.
But keeping this deluxe array of athletes out of the paint is much easier said than done – ask the Heels, who repeatedly surrendered layups without much resistance. (Memo to Zeller and Henson: You might try putting a driver on his backside at least once in 40 minutes, especially if you want to shed the Carolina-is-soft label.) Keeping the Wildcats off the offensive glass is a nightmare, too – they grabbed 16 offensive rebounds Saturday. And their transition game is more like a stampede.
"I've got good players," Calipari said. "They're young and inexperienced, but I've got good players."
He's got the best players. So good that it wouldn't be a shock to see Kentucky still undefeated into February.
There is a road game next Saturday against vastly improved Indiana, and there is a home hate-fest against Louisville on Dec. 31. Those are rivalry games against rivals who are tired of losing to the 'Cats and will give them their best shot. But the first five SEC road games look manageable – Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina. The last three will be the challenging: at Vanderbilt (Feb. 11), Mississippi State (Feb. 21) and Florida (March 4).
By then, the freshmen should be playing even better. That's the scary part.
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Pat Forde's take on slew of college scandals]
Senior Darius Miller played with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009-10. He played with Brandon Knight & Co. in 2010-11. How does this group of blue-chippers compare, Darius?
"We're probably further ahead at this point," Miller said.
Kentucky is far enough along that it could come from behind in the second half Saturday while leading scorer Jones was producing zero points. He had 14 at halftime and didn't score again, missing all three of his shots – all from 3-point range.
Last season, Jones would have forced up more shots than that, earning himself an in-game F-bombing from his coach. This season, Jones forced little and watched guys such as Lamb, Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist make the plays offensively. When Jones was out, backup Kyle Wiltjer played excellent clampdown defense in the post, double-teaming Zeller several times.
Williams can only wish his veteran-laden team had executed similarly on defense. Particularly glaring was losing track of dead-eye Lamb with less than four minutes left, giving him an inexplicably open "3" from the wing that he buried for a 69-64 Kentucky lead.
There were excessive turnovers for the Heels, too – 17 of them, many while trying to get too clever passing. And there was a boneheaded third foul by leading scorer Harrison Barnes 60 feet from the hoop in the first half.
Despite that, Carolina was in position to win late.
"You get a 10-12-footer to win the game in Rupp Arena," Williams said, "most people will take that."
I'd say every team will take it. But don't be surprised if the long arm of Anthony Davis then takes it away.
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- John Henson
- North Carolina
- Tyler Zeller