(The Sports Network)
With a trip to the Final Four on the line, the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Kentucky Wildcats will collide in Newark, New Jersey in the NCAA Tournament's East Regional Final.
It seemed a forgone conclusion that the young Wildcats of Kentucky would check out of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, as they were matched with top-seeded Ohio State in the "Sweet 16". Remarkably, fourth-seeded Kentucky put forth a tremendous defensive effort and got another clutch shot by its freshman point guard to win the game, 62-60. The victory was the ninth in a row for the 'Cats, who improved to 28-8 overall. Appearing in its record 51st NCAA Tournament, Kentucky owns a 106-46 all-time record in the event. The Wildcats have won the national title seven times, most recently in 1998.
Second-seeded North Carolina figured to have its hands full with pesky Marquette, the 11th seed, in the "Sweet 16" on Friday. To the credit of the Tar Heels, however, they were completely dominant in that clash, winning by a final of 81-63. With that triumph, they are now 29-7 overall and have won 12 of their last 13 games dating back to the regular season. UNC is a stellar 105-39 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and has five national titles to its credit, the most recent of which was earned in 2009.
Kentucky and North Carolina met back in December in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels won that affair by a 75-73 final. With regard to the all-time series between the two storied programs, UNC owns a 22-11 advantage.
Against Princeton in the second round of this tournament, Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight hit a late shot to knock off the Tigers. While that shot was certainly memorable, it now takes a back seat to the 15-footer that he drilled with five seconds remaining on Friday against Ohio State. While it was a big shot that lifted the 'Cats to victory, their defense was the real reason for the upset. Kentucky held Ohio State to 32.8 percent shooting from the floor, a tremendous accomplishment considering the wealth of talent on the Buckeye roster. All season, the Wildcats have been led by Knight and two other freshmen, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, in regard to offensive production. That wasn't the case on Friday however, as all three were held below 10 points. Fortunately for head coach John Calipari, Josh Harrellson came through with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while DeAndre Liggins netted 15 points. The fact that Kentucky beat arguably the nation's best team with sub par efforts from all three star rookies is both shocking and proof of this club's ability.
Sure, Roy Williams' North Carolina club can rack up points at the offensive end of the floor, but it was the team's defensive performance that was most impressive against Marquette on Friday. The Tar Heels limited the Golden Eagles to 36.5 percent shooting from the floor and forced 18 turnovers while committing only seven of their own giveaways. A 48-42 rebounding advantage also helped the cause for UNC, which got 27 big points and 12 rebounds from standout forward Tyler Zeller. As usual, frontcourt mates John Henson and Harrison Barnes contributed as well. Barnes scored 20 points and grabbed nine boards, while Henson added 14 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. The Heels led 40-15 at intermission, hard to believe considering how well Marquette had been playing. Keep an eye on UNC point guard Kendall Marshall, as he has been sensational over the last two months and is more than capable of holding his own against Knight in this clash.
Ohio State seemed to be not only the class of the East Region but the best team in the entire tournament. With the Buckeyes out of the way, the Heels and 'Cats are ready to do battle in what promises to be an epic showdown. In the end, expect the front line of UNC to be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: North Carolina 78, Kentucky 74