|Kentucky's Anthony Davis accounts for the play of the game, blocking John Henson's potential winner. (AP)|
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When the ball found John Henson on the right side of the court about 14 feet from the basket with just seconds remaining and North Carolina in need of a game-winning jumper, it quickly became a matter of whether the shot would find the bottom of the net.
Never under consideration was the possibility the 6-foot-10 string bean -- whose arms appear to stretch endlessly -- wouldn't get a chance to see the shot through.
"I thought I was open," Henson said.
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So did the rest of the 24,398 in attendance at Rupp Arena, nearly all of whom went silent as the ball left Henson's hands.
Then, out of nowhere came Anthony Davis, who matches Henson's height and also 7-foot-4 wingspan, to block the shot and preserve the Wildcats' 73-72 lead for the victory on Saturday afternoon.
"It was a little taste of my own medicine, which is kind of funny," Henson said. "I've done that before, and he did it to me this game."
"No one else could do that," added North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall. "No one -- except for John Henson."
It was a fitting conclusion to one of the most electric and anticipated early season contests in recent memory, the first round of what could ultimately be a two-round brawl that culminates with a matchup in the national championship game. Sure, North Carolina lost its No. 1 ranking exactly one week ago out in Vegas to UNLV and had slipped to fifth overall, but that didn't matter. Not to the fans at Rupp -- and not to the college basketball world.
This was what everyone was waiting to see. The two most talented teams in the land.
Questions abound entering the game. Would Kentucky's youth hold up against a more experienced North Carolina team? Were The Tar Heels tough enough? Which Terrence Jones would show up?
The outcome was certainly important in the sense that, if there were those who weren't already aware, this Kentucky team is for real. No, I mean for real.
Sure, John Calipari has some work to do with this group. Davis still has difficulty holding his position in the post against stronger, more experienced guys such as Tyler Zeller. Marquis Teague has a way to go as a point guard and Kyle Wiltjer needs to make his way onto the court more frequently. But it's only Dec. 3.
"I want to get to March Madness," said a smiling Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who had 17 points and 11 boards in the win. "I can't wait. It needs to hurry up."
Slow down there, Mike. We're still 121 days away from the national title game in New Orleans.
But there won't be another game like this one all year long. Sure, there may be buzzer-beaters and triple-overtime contests. There will be Duke vs. North Carolina twice in ACC play and Kentucky faces Louisville on New Year's Eve. But this one had it all: maybe more than a dozen future NBA guys on the same court in front of the most insane fan base in America (in any sport at any level).
"I didn't realize everyone was making that big of a deal out of this," Calipari said he told his team on Friday night. "It's just another game."
"It's a long season," added North Carolina coach Roy Williams following the loss. "I guarantee if you ask the 25,000 people out there, they don't remember that Kentucky lost at our place early in the season last year. They remember that they beat our rear ends in the Elite Eight."
That's accurate, but this wasn't just another game, either.
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina's star forward who picked up his third foul with a little more than six minutes remaining in the first half, scoffed at the notion that this game may not have much meaning.
"It would have been a very good road win," Barnes said. "But the fact that we couldn't execute down the stretch is kind of alarming."
The Tar Heels locker room was hardly filled with those trying to drum up optimism about playing this young Kentucky team down to the wire in a hostile environment, there was little sense of a moral victory in the fact that they took a punch early as Kentucky went up 9-2 -- yet battled back and controlled most of the game.
"It's not about that," Barnes said of the team's questioned toughness. "I already felt like we were tough enough."
But what was clear is that this Kentucky team is far different than the one that earned a trip to the Final Four a year ago. Gone are Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. Enter Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague and Wiltjer.
That's not even close, folks.
Right now this team is sharing the basketball. Jones is playing with far more patience and intelligence, and leads the team in scoring at 15 points per game.
"He's playing much harder this year as opposed to last year," Marshall said.
Five other guys -- Lamb, Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague and senior Darius Miller -- all average between 9 to 14.4 points.
"It's pick your poison," Williams said.
Lamb made huge plays in the second half; Kidd-Gilchrist may have had more impact on the game than anyone else on the court; Miller came up with a couple of huge buckets late in the game; and Davis showed why NBA scouts have him on their boards as the clear-cut No. 1 player for next June's NBA Draft.
"Not many people can block John Henson's jump shot," Williams admitted.
Following the block, the celebration began on the court and continued in the Kentucky locker room. However, Jones said -- as a veteran on this team -- he'll help make sure this young team understands this game needs to be put into perspective.
"It's not March," Jones said.
But it sure felt like it.