It has been a long four years for Rick Pitino and the Louisville basketball program since John Calipari took the Kentucky job. The Cardinals were lost in the shadows of Kentucky’s success during Calipari’s first three seasons in Lexington, until this year, when they entered the year as the No. 2 team in America. It’s Rick’s best team in his decade at Louisville and Calipari’s worst at UK, a down year after the championship run a year ago. It was now or never for Pitino, they said, as he entered tonight’s game, his fifth attempt at beating his archnemesis. With a veteran squad and Final Four experience in red, and Cal’s young, headache of a team in blue, this was Louisville’s time to steal one before Kentucky owns the series in 2013 and 2014. And steal one, they did. Louisville capitalized on the opportunity — and the officiating of Doug Shows — and won its first game in the rivalry since Billy Gillispie roamed the UK sidelines. But Louisville didn’t impress. The Cards eked out a victory, narrowly escaping a double-digit second half comeback from the Cats. It’s a win in the books for Louisville but no one in Big Blue Nation is afraid of meeting the Cards again this season. It’s quite the opposite, actually. UK is licking its chops and praying to the Gods of March for another shot.
Kentucky owns Louisville — always has and always will. Losses happen. It wouldn’t be a rivalry if Kentucky won every time. So, enjoy it, Louisville fans. You get one. Just this one.
Let’s talk about it…
It was a roller coaster of emotions for Kentucky fans as their team came out of the gate on a mission, fell down big under the pressure of the road atmosphere, and then fought back in the second half to almost pull it out. Kentucky jumped out to an 18-12 lead in the first 10 minutes and was a bounce of the ball away from sucking the air out of The Bucket on an Alex Poythress 3-pointer in the first half. Poythress had a long ball rim out, just one possession after sinking one from deep, and Louisville went on a 10-0 run off the miss. Had it gone down, the Cats would’ve been up nine points on the road with their foot on the gas and all the pressure on Louisville. Instead, Louisville took a 36-28 lead into the break; stretched it to a 17-point deficit with less than 15 minutes to play; and then almost threw it all away as Kentucky weathered the storm and climbed back. The perseverance and confidence the young Cats showed in the second half gives us hope for the future. It’s only December, folks, and tonight’s game showed a lot of promise for a run in March. I like Cal’s team. He likes them too, I’m told.
We can whine until we’re blue in the face about the poor officiating, and it was atrocious, but Kentucky can put this one on themselves after that abominable shooting performance from the stripe. The Cats missed over half of their 23 free throw attempts for an inexcusable 47.8% from the line. In a game decided by only three points, 11-of-23 shooting on freebies had a huge effect on the outcome. Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are to blame; they shot 0-for-4 and 2-for-6, respectively. Willie, however, made up for it with his play. Alex, on the other hand, well, we’ll get to him in a minute.
Kentucky debuted a new starting five against Louisville with Willie Cauley-Stein filling in for Alex Poythress. The move ended up being a good one, as Cauley-Stein played his best game as a Wildcat in a career-high 23 minutes. The freshman from Kansas grabbed eight rebounds (his fifth time with seven or more in the last six games), scored six points and swatted three shots, but the effort he gave on every possession is what has fans proud of his performance. Willie should expect to see a much bigger presence in the rotation in the next few games in place of Alex Poythress. Which brings me to my next point, the disappearance of Alex Poythress…
The storyline entering the game was Alex Poythress and which version of Alex Poythress we’d see against Louisville. Big Blue Nation knew a win was unlikely without a big game from Alex. Unfortunately, we got the worst outing of his career. Alex Poythress gave Kentucky nothing, outside of a small stretch in the first half. He completely disappeared after that. No hustle. No effort. No production. It’s like he didn’t even know a game was going on. That lackadaisical attitude found him a spot on the bench real quick and a career-low 22 minutes of action.
It’s so disappointing to see Alex play this way when he has the potential to be Kentucky’s star player. I don’t know what it is that keeps him from going 100% but he has to figure it out. Kentucky can’t go far with him on the bench in the closing minutes of tight games, like we saw tonight. He has to be a contributor. Courage needs to start roaring.
You can attribute Kentucky’s comeback to a lot of factors and performers, but none played a bigger role in leading the charge than Kyle Wiltjer. When Louisville stretched it out to a 17-point lead over the dejected Wildcats, Kyle Wiltjer busted back-to-back 3-pointers and forced Rick Pitino to call a timeout. His hot hand brought life back to the Cats when it looked like the game was over. He’s still a liability defensively, and Cal will run him to death for not diving on that loose ball, but Wiltjer’s 14 points were crucial when no one else was producing.
If you only went by the box score, you’d assume Archie carried the team with his game-high 22 points. That’s not the case. Archie wasn’t a factor until late in the game when he took advantage of a matchup with Russ Smith, who had four fouls at the time, and knocked down three 3-pointers in the final minutes. While the scoring was great, he also threw the ball away at crucial times and cost the Cats on a lot of key possessions. Archie continues to make me sweat bullets when he has the ball and I’ve finally accepted that’s just what he is. He can be so good and so awful at the same time. And I still love him for it.
Without Ryan Harrow and Nerlens Noel, Kentucky would’ve walked out of the Yum! Center on the receiving end of an ugly beatdown. Luckily, those two played great for 40 minutes and were the glue that held it all together. Harrow’s performances over the last three or four games have almost made us completely forget about his hiatus from the team, and Nerlens played like the Nerlens we’ve seen all season against Louisville. He blocked shots, contested shots, altered shots, rebounded, dunked, hustled, and everything else we could’ve asked from. Kudos to both of those guys, especially Harrow and his zero turnovers against Pitino’s press in 39 minutes and 40 seconds.
Peyton Siva had no less than 22 fouls. I’m not exaggerating that at all. Go to the tape.
And this picture is awesome…
The Diengs do America.
It was a good 1,455-day run but now Louisville has possession of the bragging rights again. I guess we can do what they’ve always done and accuse them of living in the past. “Yeah, that game was like two days ago. Louisville fans live in the past!” Does that work???
Go Cats. Always.