Lots of guts, glimpses of glory

jclay@herald-leader.comJanuary 3, 2010 

In the days leading up, the message never changed.

Don't budge.

Don't give an inch.

"Don't let 'em punk you," said John Wall.

That was John Calipari's admonition to his team, in practice, in meetings, even when his Kentucky basketball team walked onto the floor of Rupp Arena on Saturday for the opening tip of the most hyped UK-U of L game in years.

"(Coach) knew they were going to be aggressive," said Wall, Kentucky's outrageously gifted freshman guard. "If we let them punk us, they still had a chance to win the game — but they probably would have won it if we weren't going to be aggressive."

Such was the survivor scenario of Kentucky's highly charged if poorly played 71-62 win over arch rival Louisville, a game that was more a demonstration of smashmouth basketball than heavenly hoops.

The ugliness some feared might greet Rick Pitino's first trip to Rupp after his summer revelation of personal transgressions never materialized — there were no signs, no posters, and just a brief "Karen Sypher, Karen Sypher" cheer from the upper deck — but was replaced by the rudeness on the floor.

This was a game high on emotion, low on execution.

It reminded you of so many Super Bowls, with all the great hype, and then, not much good football.

There wasn't a whole lot of pure basketball here. Louisville missed its first 14 shots. After coming into the game shooting 42.2 percent from three-point range, Kentucky ended up making just two of 14 from beyond the arc, missed eight of its first 14 free throws and committed 18 turnovers.

There were five technical fouls called, and not one of them on the coaches.

"Rivalry game," said Pitino when asked about the physical play.

But there was a downright beautiful stretch of 83 seconds, after Louisville scrapped its way to a 42-41 lead, when John Wall came out of the shadows to score six straight points.

Afterward, Pitino said it reminded him of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, the way Wall failed to get frustrated and then succeeded when it counted most.

After Terrence Jennings' free throw put the visitors up 42-41, Wall scored on a drive with 9:31 left. Then he hit a jumper with 8:38 remaining. When he made two free throws at the 8:08 mark, UK was up five. When Perry Stevenson scored off a pretty Eric Bledsoe assist, the home team was up seven and in control.

"He wasn't having a good night," said Pitino, "but the great thing about that young man is it never bothered him, (he) never lost focus, stayed with it and made two killer plays."

But hadn't that been Calipari's message all along? Fight through the frustration. Play through the bumps.

After all, Cal knows Pitino, and vice versa. It wasn't by accident that in his meeting with the media on Friday, the current UK coach kept mentioning "bumping and grinding," and "kneeing" and "hipping" and "riding" when talking about the defense used by the former UK coach.

"We went through this thing called a gauntlet," said Wall, "of where you're getting beat up when you're driving the ball and getting pulled, because we knew these guys were going to play tough."

In fact, in the first minute, the two teams were too jacked up. Brushing against each other. Trash talking. So charged up was Bledsoe, the freshman had to be yanked by Calipari seven seconds into the contest for trash-talking.

Then just 45 seconds after the opening tip, a savage scramble for the ball resulted in technical fouls on Louisville's Jared Swopshire and Reggie Delk, plus, after a view of the replay, an added tech on DeMarcus Cousins for forearming Swopshire in the neck while the two were on the floor.

"Just going for a loose ball," shrugged Cousins, who ended up with 18 points and 18 rebounds in 26 minutes.

"Did you see how the game was played?" said Calipari. "There were things, grabbing, kicking, grabbing, punching, eyeball-dragging, fish-hooks, nose drags. There was everything in the game."

Everything but basketball, you could argue.

Except, if you were a Kentucky fan, those sweet 83 seconds. That's all the basketball the Cats needed.

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