COLUMN: Lack of inside game finally catches up with Cats

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— Terrence Jones, Eloy Vargas and Josh Harrellson met their match on Tobacco Road in the form of Tyler Zeller and John Henson.

All season the Cats have been able to compensate for their lack of frontcourt depth thanks to their size and athleticism. All that changed in the Cats’ 75-73 loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday in the Dean Smith Center.

At the final buzzer, Jones, Vargas and Harrellson were all sitting on the UK bench, all fouled out and largely ineffective for much of the game. The Heels’ athletic frontcourt players pressured UK into foul trouble early—Harrellson and Vargas had three apiece at halftime—and combined for 54 of Carolina’s 75 points.

“Obviously getting into foul trouble hurt us a lot, it handcuffed us,” UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua said. “Guys then become passive and not as aggressive as we’d like them to be, but we got to learn how to play with fouls and get better with that.”

Zeller, a junior 7-footer, led the charge for the Heels’ frontcourt with a career-high in points (27) and rebounds (11) and matching a career-high in blocks (5).

Perhaps more impressive than Zeller’s impressive statistics or his go-ahead free throws with 47 seconds to play was the defensive play of his partner in the paint, the 6-foot-10 sophomore Henson, in stopping Jones, UK’s leading scorer entering the game.

UK freshman guard Doron Lamb said going up against Henson “probably hurt Terrence a little bit because he hasn’t gone against anyone like (Henson) this season.”

And the Heels knew it.

“We tried to get John on (Jones) because John’s size bothers everybody,” Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “In the first half, we didn’t double him, in the second half if he got the ball we got someone with John to double him in the post.”

Jones finished 3 of 17 from the field and seemed to be flustered by meeting an opponent equal to him in raw athletic ability. He fouled out of the game with more than three minutes left to play.

“I think, sometimes, when my matchup shoots the ball, they’re not used to seeing an arm that close to their shot,” Henson said.

What UK should be used to, however, is realizing that its frontcourt depth is as thin as a Listerine fresh breath strip. Consequently, foul trouble, particularly in a hostile environment, will nine times out of 10 prove costly.

“(Foul trouble) came into play today, and that’s something we’re going to have to work on,” UK junior guard Darius Miller said. “There are only two big men on our team, really, and (versus) Tyler Zeller and the rest of them, those 7-footers, it’s kind of tough when our big men get into foul trouble…it’s really tough when they get into foul trouble because then we’ve got no big men to help us out.”

The UK guards did the lion’s share of the scoring, 60 of the Cats’ 73 points to be exact, but more questions now exist as to whether the Cats can survive the entire season solely as a guard-oriented team.

With the eligibility case of UK freshman forward Enes Kanter set to start over from the beginning, any help in the inside game is going to have to come from those on the active roster.

It starts with Harrellson, Vargas and Jones, who for the first time this year, met their match.