Johnson scored 16 in the second half, helping Kentucky (9-2) hold off North Carolina (8-3) in their first meeting since the 2017 NCAA South Regional final. The Tar Heels won that game on a last-second jumper by Luke Maye en route to their sixth NCAA title.
This time, Johnson came on strong down the stretch after Travis got off to a scorching start. "We're not the same team we were two weeks ago," Calipari said. "It's not even close. And hopefully two weeks from now, we're not gonna be the same team we are today."
Johnson hit three 3-pointers in the second half and made 4 of 7 from beyond the arc overall. Travis dominated down low in the early going, scoring 16 as the Wildcats grabbed a 40-31 halftime lead. Tyler Herro scored 15. PJ Washington added 11 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high eight assists. Ashton Hagans contributed a personal-best eight steals, and Kentucky won its second in a row since an overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden. The other defeat was a season-opening blowout by Duke in Indianapolis.
"If we had won (the Seton Hall) game, we wouldn't have all this craziness," Calipari said. "But this is Kentucky. Good luck. ... We have the greatest fans in the country, we do. But they also want to win every game by 25."
The Wildcats probably wouldn't mind that, either. But they'll take a tight win over one of the nation's best teams. "I don't think either team played exceptionally well but John's club played better, (they were) better prepared and it's a little frustrating for us right now," coach Roy Williams said.
Cameron Johnson led North Carolina with 17 points. Maye scored 16 for the Tar Heels, who knocked off then-No. 4 Gonzaga one week earlier. This was their first game since the school announced an eight-year contract extension through the 2027-28 season for its Hall of Fame coach.
"We have to do a better job of holding our team accountable and coming back off a big win with the mindset that we've got to get another one," Maye said. "We just didn't come in and do that today." Kentucky was leading 66-55 with just under eight minutes to go after Keldon Johnson nailed 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions.
North Carolina then cut the lead to six, but two steals by Hagans helped bump it back up to 11. The first led to a 3 by Washington, and Hagans then scored on a breakaway layup off another steal to make it 71-60 with 5:50 left.
"I'm putting the ball in his hands and he's making the right plays," Calipari said. "He's making the game easy for everybody now. He did jog it up a little bit today and I got on him, but the reality of it is it's kind of like a pressing team; you press a pressing team. And if a team is a speed team you go right back at 'em with speed. Which is what we were trying to do today."
BIG PICTURE North Carolina: The Tar Heels will have to do a better job on the glass and hanging onto the ball. They got outrebounded 44-33 and committed 18 turnovers, leading to 23 points. North Carolina coughed it up 22 times against Gonzaga.
Kentucky: The Wildcats came away with the win despite committing 18 turnovers and making just 9 of 26 3-pointers. QUOTABLE "He's just a great coach. He's got a lot of great ideas for the program. And he's gonna continue to do a great job." — Maye on Williams' extension.
UP NEXT North Carolina: Hosts Davidson on Dec. 29. Kentucky: Visits Louisville on Dec. 29.
This story has been corrected to change Johnson's point total to 21 instead of 23 because of an official scoring error.
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