As the Christmas season wound down, one more passion play remained. The Red-clad Cardinals came to Rupp Arena to face the Blue-clad Wildcats. No state is more passionate about its basketball, and the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry epitomized that on Saturday in Lexington.
Cats-Cards. Calipari-Pitino. Blue-Red. SEC-ACC. National TV. Three guard offense-three guard offense. Both teams are striving to catapult themselves into the national title discussion.
The Big Blue Nation knew they had to wait an extra day to unwrap their final Christmas present. Many were afraid the last package would contain a lump of coal or a bundle of switches. Others reasoned, surely Santa Claus knew who had been naughty and who had been nice.
The “Ville” rolled into Lexington with some gaudy statistics: they lead the nation in scoring margin (30.2), are second in rebounding margin (+14.9), second in scoring defense (55.9), fifth in field goal percentage defense (.352) and sixth in field goal percentage (.519).
Big Blue fans had reason for pre-game concern.
Many highly anticipated games do not live up to the hype: that was not the case in this game. After battling tooth and tong (technical fouls on each coach, five ties and three lead changes) for 20 minutes, UK led 44-36 thanks to native Kentuckians Dominique Hawkins (two 3-pointers) and Derek Willis (one 3-pointer).
The anticipated match-up of guards Damion Lee, Quentin Snider and Trey Lewis vs. Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe was derailed when Briscoe injured his ankle during pre-game warm-ups. But the guards vs. guards match-ups were still something special.
U of L’s Lee, a grad student transfer from Drexel (second in the nation in scoring last season), had one of those great visiting performances that almost propelled his team to a victory, finishing with 27 points and a 3-point attempt at the buzzer that would have won the game (a shot heavily contested by Alex Poythress). The other transfer grad student, Lewis (from Cleveland State) also had a good game finishing with 15 points (2-3 beyond the arc). Pitino has found his own way to work the one and done angle.
Despite the absence of Briscoe, the UK guards stepped up to answer the challenge. While Ulis is the shortest player on the team, his impact on the game was huge: 21 points (4-7 from 3-point land) and eight assists in 39 grueling minutes.
Ulis’s play and leadership were typified by one shot late in the game. Louisville had just cut UK’s early 16-point second-half lead to one on a 3-pointer by Lee. With the shot clock winding down, Ulis went up from about 30 feet out and nailed his 3 to put UK back up by 4 with 4:57 to play.
One would have thought the absence of Briscoe would have hurt UK’s chances, but instead it afforded Hawkins the opportunity to have a breakout game. Kentucky fans always have a special affinity for players from Kentucky. After giving UK a much needed spark in the first half, Hawkins went on to play 26 minutes, scoring 13 points. A much needed lift for the Wildcats helping them secure the 75-73 victory.
Random sights and thoughts from Rupp Arena:
Sartorial splendor: You can’t hope to beat Rick Pitino; you can only hope to contain him. Calipari was close with a dark gray suit and blue checked tie with tie clip, but Ricky P. is the master and came out in a light gray suit, white pocket square and red-checked tie. Slight advantage to Pitino, the original coaching fashionista.
Blue Y: Nzar Mohammed came out to make the “Y” in the spelling of Kentucky (seemed a little ironic since coach Pitino mentored and pushed Nzar as a young UK player; lessons learned so well Mohammed had turned into a good player at UK and has had a long NBA career). Thanks coach but I still bleed blue.
Battling Santas: Spotted in the stands, one Santa Claus in a blue suit and one in a red suit.
We’re No. 1: Exiting through the tunnel back to the locker room after the game, coach Pitino seemed to be caught on video giving a one-finger salute to the boisterous UK fans. He later said the finger was a proclamation U of L was No. 1.
Player of the game: A little bit later going back out the same tunnel was Dominique Hawkins, heading out to be interviewed on radio by Mike Pratt as the player of the game. What a day for Dom.