Roy Williams and North Carolina continue to think long-term, but Tar Heels are not letting championship goals obscure challenge of South Regional final matchup with Kentucky. (Photo by University of North Carolina Athletics)
The fast-paced, 103-100 thriller on December 17 in Las Vegas remains, to some, the best college basketball game of the season.
The two teams who contributed to the high drama in Sin City now have a chance to reprise their holiday epic, as North Carolina and Kentucky face off again in Memphis Sunday evening, this time with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
"We came to North Carolina to be in these types of games, to play against the top players in the country," Justin Jackson said as UNC (30-7) readies for the opportunity to settle a score against the Wildcats, who emerged victorious in the first meeting between the two schools, largely due to Malik Monk's 47 points, the second-largest total scored in a single game against the Tar Heels in program history. "Obviously we played them already once and Malik went crazy, but it's a different team, different time of the year. I think we've gotten better and they've gotten better, but then we've just got to come out and play as hard as possible."
One thing in particular has changed for UNC since their first meeting with Kentucky (32-5) and John Calipari's latest crop of future NBA players. Theo Pinson, who was injured in the first half of the season, has since returned, and is being counted on to make a difference in limiting the Wildcats' multi-pronged offensive attack.
"Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game," said Kennedy Meeks of Pinson's impact and likely matchup with Monk, the precocious sharpshooter who has established himself as a projected lottery pick in June's NBA Draft. "That's just the type of effect that he has. Even though all of us get tired sometimes, I think he's definitely one of the best defenders. He does a great job of coming in the game and giving us a lift."
As the Tar Heels continue to drive themselves toward a chance to atone for the heartbreaking end to last season's national championship game, a storyline that has naturally gathered more steam as the calendar delves further into March, their desire to rewrite the ending has never been more apparent. But first, a different kind of revenge lies in front of UNC to be exacted before anyone can board a plane to Arizona, that being the chance to get even with Kentucky.
"We understand what we're trying to do, get back to the Final Four, have another chance at the national title game," Pinson reiterated. "But we've got to take care of tomorrow's game first. Those guys, they're young, but they're still hungry. They want to be there too. It's going to be an all-out dogfight."
The biggest reason why UNC is even in the South Regional final echoed Pinson's sentiment.
"You can look at experience and what we've been through," said Joel Berry II, who scored 26 points in Friday's win over Butler, when asked what the Tar Heels' biggest motivators have been. "I know there's a lot of pressure on the game because (if) you lose, you go home. We just have to realize our ultimate goal and what we want to do, and then we've just got to be ready to play tomorrow and just realize that tomorrow is the important game. We'll worry about the Final Four and that stuff later on."