Wheeler leads Cats to blowout win over North Carolina


Mike Cyrus

Oscar Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler have been consistent performers for the Kentuck Wildcats this season.

By Keith Taylor, Kentucky Today

Sahvir Wheeler stole the show as Kentucky rolled to an easier-than-expected 98-69 win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic Saturday in Las Vegas.

Wheeler scored a season-high 26 points to lead the Wildcats to a 29-point victory over the Tar Heels as Kentucky (8-2) bounced back from a disappointing 66-62 setback to Notre Dame last week in South Bend. North Carolina (8-2) had a five-game winning streak and suffered the largest margin of defeat in the series between the storied programs.

After his team’s poor showing last Saturday, Kentucky coach John Calipari changed his team’s offensive approach. He said the outing was “by far the best we’ve played and we’re still trying to figure it out.”

“The focus on our offense was a little bit different — how we were going to play,” Calipari said. “We were going to go back to my old-school, dribble-drive stuff. … You’ve got to get to 75 or 80 (points). If you’re not getting to 75 or 80 (points) you’re not going to go on a run at the end of the year — you’re not.”

Kentucky was scheduled to play Ohio State in the four-team event, but the Buckeyes canceled because of COVID-19 restrictions. UCLA, which was supposed to take on North Carolina, also withdrew from the event because of virus protocols, resulting in the lone encounter between the Wildcats and Tar Heels. Calipari said his team didn’t have time to prepare for the Tar Heels in such a short amount of time.

“The good news is that most of my time in the days before (the game) were spent on us,” he said. “Not a whole lot of time was spent on Ohio State. I got on the plane and figured, we may play North Carolina, I watched two tapes … but did not know who we were playing. I’m glad it was North Carolina. We needed to go against a good team to figure out what we are.”

What he figured out was his point guard knows more about his dribble-drive scheme than he previously thought, and requested that Wheeler lead the Wildcats to victory.

“Sahvir, lead us,” Calipari told his squad prior to the contest.

In his last outing, Wheeler struggled and scored just three points — all on free throws — in the loss to the Irish. Wheeler was nearly unstoppable against North Carolina. He made 12-of-15 shots and set the tone early by scoring 14 points in the opening half. He finished with eight assists and added four steals and three rebounds. He simply wanted to “flip the page” and look ahead following last week’s performance.

“Everybody is going to have a bad game and it so happened it was that game (Notre Dame) and we lost,” Wheeler said. “I’m a confident kid … I play for the big lights and (that’s) why I came here to play against the best and be challenged every day in practice by my teammates and my coaches. … This opportunity, I was really looking forward to it, whether it was Ohio State or North Carolina.”

Kentucky, which made two threes in last week’s loss at Notre Dame, made eight treys on 15 attempts, including five on eight tries in the second half as the Wildcats put the game away. Kellan Grady provided the fireworks from long range and made five 3-pointers and finished with 18 points.

Despite playing just eight minutes in the first half, Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Keion Brooks rounded out four players in double figures with 10 points.

North Carolina first-year coach Hubert Davis wasn’t surprised by Kentucky’s performance and said the Wildcats “played with a fire inside of them after losing to Notre Dame.”

“They played harder, they played smarter (and) they played tougher,” he said.

It clearly showed.

Gametracker: Louisville at Kentucky, 6 p.m., Wednesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.