CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Sometimes wins are great wins because you played brilliantly. Or because you topped a marquee opponent. Or because you came from behind late, executed down the stretch, stole one that seemed lost, whatever. There are lots of things that factor in. That's my point.
And then there are wins that are great simply because they're wins that allowed you to avoid a complete and total meltdown, and that's the kind of great win North Carolina recorded against Kentucky here at the Dean Smith Center.
It wasn't pretty.
It wasn't all that convincing.
But it wasn't a loss, either, and that's what makes it great.
"Sometimes you need a pressure-reliever," North Carolina sophomore Leslie McDonald said. "This game is definitely a pressure-reliever for us."
Tyler Zeller scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds Saturday to lead North Carolina to a 75-73 victory against a Kentucky team that could've used Enes Kanter, DeMarcus Cousins or Daniel Orton. Or Perry Stevenson, even. UNC's three starting forwards outscored UK's two starting forwards 42-13; UNC finished with a 34-14 scoring advantage in the paint.
So the Tar Heels won for the exact reasons they should've won -- because they're bigger and stronger and more talented in the frontcourt than Kentucky, and because they were playing in front of a friendly crowd of 20,695.
I'm not sure the Tar Heels won because they're great.
I'm not sure they won because the worst is behind them.
But that doesn't matter on a day like today. All that matters is that North Carolina didn't take a loss that would've sent its fans into a state of disbelief, because these fans didn't need that, and they probably couldn't have taken it. They've taken enough already. They watched their team last season go from being ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll to participating in the NIT because of a 16-16 record on Selection Sunday. They watched their team this season go from being ranked No. 8 in the preseason AP poll to being unranked with a 4-3 record featuring no quality victories.
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A loss Saturday would've given UNC four losses in four weeks.
So a loss Saturday would've been awful.
"This is very important, especially [after] the loss we had to Illinois [on Tuesday night]," North Carolina sophomore Dexter Strickland said. "It shows everybody and ourselves that we're capable."
But capable of what?
That's a question that remains difficult to answer after watching the Tar Heels multiple times on television, and now in person. They're clearly gifted up front with Zeller and John Henson (13 points and 12 rebounds in 31 minutes against UK), and I think Harrison Barnes (12 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes against UK) will ultimately break though even if he doesn't develop into a First Team All-American as a freshman. But North Carolina still has point-guard issues that are obvious and undeniable, and things could really spiral if Zeller -- the team's most reliable scorer -- were to miss time with an injury for a third consecutive season. So while some spent the afternoon suggesting this is a corner-turning victory for North Carolina because it came against a team ranked 10th nationally, it's probably more accurate to describe it as a down-to-the-wire win at home over a team that relies heavily on three freshmen (Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb), two of whom (Jones and Knight) actually fouled out.
Bottom line, I'm not convinced this win means what some think it means, not convinced the preseason ranking of the Tar Heels -- not to mention my prediction that they could challenge Duke in the ACC -- makes any more sense today than it did after the losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico. We'll see, I guess. But what I'm certain of, regardless, is that this win is a great win because it's not a home loss that dropped the Tar Heels to 4-4. Sometimes avoiding bad is what makes something good, and that's absolutely the case with this win. Furthermore, it's a win that should allow North Carolina to take a three-game winning streak -- the next two games are against Evansville (Wednesday) and Long Beach State (next Saturday) -- into its game with No. 19 Texas on Dec. 18. So, as McDonald put it, the pressure should be relieved from this program for at least the next two weeks, which means the next two weeks should be more pleasant than the previous two.
"I really believe this team is going to be a good basketball team," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, and that's the greatest thing about Saturday's great win. It wasn't pretty or all that convincing. But it was enough to keep people around here believing and optimistic, because it's much easier to feel good about a team with a 5-3 record than it is to feel good about one with four losses only four weeks in.