Dec. 5, 2009

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -John Calipari's rebuilding project at Kentucky is ahead of schedule.

Freshman star John Wall shook off a leg injury to finish with 16 points, including the clinching free throws with 4 seconds remaining, and the fifth-ranked Wildcats held off No. 10 North Carolina 68-66 on Saturday.

Patrick Patterson added 19 points and seven rebounds for Kentucky (8-0), which snapped a five-game losing streak to the Tar Heels (7-2) and inched closer to becoming the first program to reach 2,000 victories. The Wildcats have 1,996, while North Carolina has 1,991.

Kentucky is off to its best start since the 1992-93 season, when it started 11-0.

Deon Thompson led North Carolina with 14 points and Will Graves added 13, but the Tar Heels' second-half rally stalled in the final minutes.

Wall and fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe made sure of it, making 5 of 6 free throws in the last 30 seconds after North Carolina had trimmed a 19-point deficit to two.

Bledsoe shook off a couple off costly late-game turnovers to knock down a pair of foul shots, and after Graves missed a 3-pointer and the rebound bounced out off bounds, Bledsoe made one of two to put Kentucky ahead 66-61.

After a tip-in by Thompson pulled Carolina to 66-63, Wall finished his breakout performance by calmly sinking two free throws with 4.3 seconds left.

Graves hit a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer, and by then the Wildcats bench had poured out onto the floor to celebrate the biggest victory in years.

Calipari said before the game he was anxious to see how the Wildcats responded after getting "punched in the mouth."

The answer proved to be easy: Get the ball into the hands of Wall, who dazzled the NBA scouts in attendance with the kind of playmaking ability that will likely make him a lottery pick next spring if he chooses to leave. Wall finished with seven assists, five rebounds and a handful of spectacular plays.

It almost wasn't enough to hold off the defending national champions. North Carolina trailed by 15 at the break but slowly got back in it by slowing the tempo.

It helped that Wall was off the floor. He slowly walked to the locker room early in the second half with a leg injury, sending an uneasy buzz through the record crowd of 24,468 who packed Rupp Arena.

Wall missed seven long minutes, but Kentucky managed to retain the lead thanks to some shaky shooting by the Tar Heels. North Carolina was 39 percent from the floor and missed several bunnies in the lane during Wall's absence.

He returned with Kentucky up 54-42, but the Wildcats looked dazed at times as the game slowed to a crawl. Still, after North Carolina pulled within one possession, Wall delivered.

The win provided redemption of sorts for the Raleigh, N.C., native, who dreamed about playing for the Tar Heels. Though North Carolina pursued him throughout high school, his relationship with coach Roy Williams cooled during his senior year.

Wall said Williams called him before last spring's NCAA tournament, saying the two would talk when the tournament was over. Williams never called back, and Wall opted for Kentucky.

He did his best to show Williams what the Tar Heels are missing.

North Carolina built an early 9-2 lead which the Wildcats quickly erased behind their freshman star. Wall started with a dunk, then followed it up moments later with a ridiculous reverse layup. The two plays seemed to settle his teammates, sparking a 28-2 flurry.

By the time Patterson capped it with a pair of free throws, the Wildcats led 30-11.

The run looked awfully familiar to the Tar Heels, who were buried by Syracuse last month in the finals of the 2K Sports Classic after the Orange opened the second half with a 22-1 burst.

North Carolina bounced back with three straight wins, including an 89-82 victory over No. 9 Michigan State on Tuesday, giving Williams hope that his young team had matured.

The Tar Heels hardly looked it during the first half, turning it over 11 times, allowing Wall to go to work in transition.

North Carolina simply had no answer for the speedy point guard, and Kentucky roared into the half with a 43-28 lead and appeared well on its way to posting the first signature victory of Calipari's tenure before holding on in the end.