John Clay: What we learned from December's Cats-Cards clash

jclay@herald-leader.comMarch 28, 2012 

Louisville Cardinals' Peyton Siva (3) fouled Marquis Teague (25) in the first half of the Louisville at Kentucky basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 31, 2011. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

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It was the last day in December. Kentucky's record was 12-1, its lone loss coming three weeks before at Indiana. Louisville was 12-1, its lone loss coming three days before at home to Georgetown. Kentucky was ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. Louisville was ranked No. 4. Bragging rights were at stake.

Now, on the last day of March, the two teams meet again. It's the NCAA Tournament's national semifinal, better known as the Final Four. Kentucky is the tourney's overall No. 1 seed. Louisville is the No. 4 seed from the West Region. Not just bragging rights are at stake, but also a berth in Monday's national title game.

Three months have passed since that first meeting, a 69-62 Kentucky win in Rupp Arena.

Now the question: Does that first game have anything to do with this upcoming game?

Much like we did last week before the Kentucky-Indiana game, here are four factors that mattered most in the first meeting.

1. The winner's star got support, where the loser's star did not.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist turned in a tour de force against the Cardinals, scoring 24 points and snatching 19 rebounds. He wasn't alone. Freshman center Anthony Davis scored 18 points, cleared 10 rebounds and swatted six shots. Sophomore forward Terrence Jones, coming off the bench after a finger injury, missed eight of nine shots but grabbed 11 rebounds.

On the Louisville side, Russ Smith scored 30 points, making 10 of 20 shots, including three three-pointers. His teammates combined for just 32 points, however. Point guard Peyton Siva made just two of 13 shots. Fellow guard Chris Smith hit but two of his 10 attempts. No Cardinal grabbed more than five rebounds. (More on that later.)

To beat Kentucky on Saturday, U of L can't be a one-man band.

2. The winners overcame the losers' style of play.

Rick Pitino got the game he wanted. Louisville slowed the pace. Louisville made it physical. Louisville fouled and fouled and fouled. Between the two teams, 52 fouls were called, 70 free throws were taken.

If Louisville wanted a muddy surface, instead of a speed track, Kentucky fought its way through. The Cats shot 29.8 percent, its worst percentage in three years under John Calipari. But the Cats controlled the boards (57-31), especially the offensive boards. Of 41 offensive-rebound opportunities, Kentucky made good on 20.

Second-chance points: Kentucky 20, Louisville 6.

3. The winners withstood the losers' best run.

Backed by a loud home crowd, Kentucky broke from the gate quickly. Seven minutes in, the home team led 16-8. With 5:09 remaining, Kidd-Gilchrist scored, giving him 15 points, and the Kentucky lead was 31-16.

By halftime, the Cards had closed the gap to 36-33. When Russ Smith banged home a three-pointer with 15:23 left, the score was tied 40-40 as the Rupp patrons edged closer to panic.

Not to fear. Kentucky embarked on a 7-0 run for a 47-40 lead. Near game's end, UK led the Cards 69-56. A pair of Russ Smith threes in the final four seconds, with a backcourt turnover in between, caused the final margin to appear respectable.

For Kentucky to win Saturday, surely the Cats will have to survive another run from the streaky Cards. For Louisville to win, the Cards will have to make the run last much longer.

4. The winners were better prepared.

All Kentucky-Louisville basketball games are soaked in hype. Kentucky didn't care. After his standout performance, Kidd-Gilchrist remarked that he was from Jersey. And Jersey kids don't care about hype. Davis had earned accolades for his game-saving block against North Carolina. He had already come up big in a big game.

Before coming to Rupp for New Year's Eve, Louisville had played a forgiving (or forgettable) schedule. The Cards had left the state just once, to play Butler in Indianapolis. Against UK, Chane Behanan fouled out with four points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. Center Gorgui Dieng blocked six shots, but was limited to five points and five rebounds. Caught up in the moment, Siva neglected feeding his teammates and took 13 shots.

As individuals, Kentucky is more experienced now. Louisville is more experienced as a team. The Cards played that 18-game Big East schedule, along with four Big East Tournament games. They beat No. 1 seed Michigan State in Phoenix, then rallied from 11 points down in the final eight minutes to top the Gators. They will be better prepared this time around.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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