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March 27, 2011

Kentucky stops Tar Heels short of Final Four

NEWARK, N.J. - All season long, North Carolina seemed to thrive on adversity.

The Tar Heels lost teammates. They lost games. They fell behind in plenty of others. But time after time, they bounced back, whether it was to steal a narrow win or make the run through March that got them within a game of the Final Four.

That, however, was where it ended. One last comeback bid, in Carolina's 76-69 loss to Kentucky in the East Regional final, wasn't meant to be.

So instead of one more improbable celebration, the Tar Heels were left to sit in the locker room with red-rimmed eyes, contemplating the end of their season.

"I couldn't be more proud of my team than I am," UNC coach Roy Williams said, his voice cracking. "I wouldn't trade my kids for anybody. It's been an unbelievable ride, and they've been an unbelievable group of kids. And they really made coaching fun. And we've had some adversity, and they just kept together and kept coming back, like they did today."

The Wildcats (29-8), who advanced to the Final Four to take on Connecticut, built an 11-point lead early in the second half behind a pair of their dozen 3-pointers.

At that same time, John Henson picked up his fourth foul, leaving Carolina (29-8) without a key inside presence for the next eight-plus minutes.

"It hurt a lot," Henson said. "I felt like I could have helped a lot more. I've never experienced that before."

Were it not for the fact that the Tar Heels have thrived on making comebacks late in the season, it would have seemed almost hard to believe when they weathered Henson's absence and eventually made a 10-2 run to tie the game at 67 with a little more than three minutes to go.

"I believed with all my heart that we were going to come back to win that game," UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said.

But Brandon Knight, who led Kentucky with 22 points and was named Most Outstanding Player, answered UNC's run with his biggest shot of the game, a contested three in front of the Wildcats' bench.

Carolina responded with a tip-in from Tyler Zeller - who led UNC with 21 points - and had a chance to take the lead soon after, when Marshall had a layup attempt blocked by DeAndre Liggins near the rim.

"All we needed was one shot to fall, and it would be a different locker room," Henson said.

That's when Liggins - known better for his defense than his shooting - crushed Carolina's hopes with a 3-pointer that made it 73-69 with 36 seconds to go.

That was the theme all night for Kentucky - deadly threes.

The 12 they hit went in at a 54.5-percent clip, and it seemed like the majority of those makes served as well-timed momentum killers.

When Carolina pulled within six points with 13 minutes to go, Darius Miller buried one.

When Carolina pulled within five points three minutes later, Knight knocked one down.

Somehow, the Tar Heels were able to fight through each long-range dagger before the one Liggins hit.

A lot of credit for that goes to Dexter Strickland, who scored nine of his 11 points in the second half. And of course, freshman Harrison Barnes, known all season for his late-game heroics, tried to go into take-over mode in the final minutes.

He had that familiar determined look in his eyes as he scored eight straight points during Carolina's game-tying run.

But in the end, not even Barnes could carry the Heels to a win.

He attempted to draw contact on a 3-point attempt with 26 seconds to go but didn't get a whistle as the ball fell well short. A high-arcing 3-point try the next time down the floor was also an air ball.

For a change, the Carolina comeback was not meant to be.

That made for a lot of muted emotions and residually teary eyes in the UNC locker room as the reality set in for the players that they would not get to play another day.

"We told each other at halftime that we've come too far to just wait until next year," Marshall said. "We've come too far to stop. We're here now, why not do it now? But we came up short.

"What hurts the most is knowing that there's nothing else. There's no more practices, there's no more scouting reports. That's what hurts the most, knowing that this season is over and there's nothing you can do about it."


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