LEXINGTON, Kentucky (Ticker) -- Gerald Fitch gave Kentucky's offense a shot in the arm.
Fitch scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half, including a key 3-pointer with 24 seconds left, as the sixth-ranked Wildcats held on for a 61-56 victory over No. 9 North Carolina.
In a battle of college basketball's two winningest programs, Kentucky (9-1) managed just eight baskets at halftime and fell into a 28-20 hole. Fitch and the Wildcats heated up after the break, connecting on 55 percent (17-of-31) from the floor.
"I know we struggled scoring in the first half and were in a drought," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "I think we were still playing cautiously."
North Carolina (8-2) snapped a scoring drought of more than six minutes on Raymond Felton's 3-pointer that sliced the deficit to 57-56 with 56 seconds to go. Fitch drove to the basket, but was rejected out of bounds by Sean May.
Kentucky inbounded and went back to its leading scorer and Fitch received a screen from Chuck Hayes and nailed a long 3-pointer over Jackie Manuel - his fifth of the game - with 24 seconds remaining for a four-point edge.
"Chuck set a great screen and I was able to get some room," Fitch said. "The shot clock was at seven or eight and I was looking for the shot."
The Tar Heels led by as many as 10 points on May's hook that opened the scoring in the second half. But Kentucky's tremendous defensive effort limited North Carolina to only Felton's 3-pointer in the final 7:13.
Kentucky entered off two rough performances, its first loss to Louisville last Saturday and a harrowing victory over Austin Peay on Wednesday. Fitch made just 8-of-27 shots in those games before bouncing back to drain 8-of-17 against the Tar Heels.
"The last two games we didn't have any energy or passion, and that's what we need to win ballgames," Hayes said.
Erik Daniels collected 18 points and 10 rebounds and Hayes added 10 points for Kentucky, which has won four straight against North Carolina. Cliff Hawkins, who made 1-of-13 shots, had six assists and played effective defense against Felton.
May returned after missing a game with a sprained left ankle and fellow forward Jawad Williams also was back after suffering a mild concussion on Sunday. Neither was effective - the duo combined to make 4-of-16 shots for 11 points.
"I could say that Williams and May didn't practice this week, but that's just a bunch of excuses," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "At the end of the year, it counts as a game, win or lose."
Rashad McCants, who scored 28 points in the Tar Heels' last game, was limited to four points on 2-of-7 shooting. North Carolina was harassed into 20 turnovers and its offense was disoriented down the stretch.
"We didn't look like a very well-coached team out there today," Roy Williams said.