Barnes, Zeller and Henson competed ferociously

CBS — North Carolina boasts too proud a program to console itself with near-wins, but the Tar Heels unquestionably bolstered their NCAA tournament credentials despite a 73-72 defeat to Kentucky this afternoon.

Carolina actually had possession and a chance to take the lead in the final seconds, but Tyler Zeller lost control of the ball in the post and, despite its bouncing fortuitously into the hands of John Henson, the big man’s jump shot was blocked.

Depending upon which angle you use to examine the stats, it’s either shocking that the Heels lost or shocking that they weren’t blown out. They addressed widespread skepticism —mine included—about their jump shooting prowess, knocking down a sensational 11-for-18 from the three-point line.

They also buried 79 percent of their free throws and notched nearly twice the number of assists as Kentucky.

But the high percentage area ultimately undid Carolina’s upset challenge. The Wildcats broke Carolina’s interior defense repeatedly, beating the Heels 36-14 on points in the paint. Roy Williams prides himself on maximizing his teams’ ability to score inside, and such a monstrous deficit occurred because UNC failed to restrain UK’s sensational athleticism and length.

The game’s flow favored Carolina for most of the first half and down the stretch, but a ghastly interval during the second half resulted in Kentucky reversing a five-point deficit and pushing out to a working margin of its own.

Like the team itself, all of UNC’s regulars both enjoyed great moments and botched opportunities to further impact the game. Kendall Marshall rose to the occasion as a playmaker (getting eight more assists) and a scorer, knocking in two threes to shrug off a recent slump. However, he had three turnovers as well, including sloppy play during the club’s most difficult stretch.

Harrison Barnes started hot but landed in foul trouble, though he finished with 14 points on 4-for-5 from behind the three-point line. Henson (10 points, eight rebounds, three blocks) and Zeller (14 points, eight rebounds) couldn’t establish physical dominance inside and didn’t finish well, but both competed vigorously against likely the longest and most talented frontcourt they’ll face all season.

Designated shooters Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston combined for 5-for-9 on threes in 33 combined minutes, and fans wondered why Hairston, in particular, received only 14 minutes of action.

Still, it’s essential to remember that these December games don’t hold much predictive value for the NCAA tournament in the spring. The Heels very nearly handed Kentucky coach John Calipari his first loss at Rupp Arena, and it was obvious to all that these were two evenly matched, heavyweight clubs in prime contention to win a national title. Isn’t that all you reasonably can ask?

Carolina’s upcoming slate of games this month gets easier, including Evansville at home on Tuesday evening. Click here to view the UNC/Kentucky box score.