LOUISVILLE — After 35 minutes of basketball uglier than a horny toad, our state's marquee women's basketball rivalry churned out a heart-pounder of a finish.
Down 14 to No. 7 Louisville with 15:08 left in the game, No. 9 Kentucky had the ball down only two as the final seconds ticked down on the KFC Yum Center clock.
As 15,453 fans stood in anticipation, UK's fate was in the hands of a 19-year-old, 5-foot-7 freshman.
Problem was, Janee Thompson couldn't figure out what to do.
The little point guard from Chicago had already dribbled off almost 20 seconds of the shot clock. UK senior star A'dia Mathies — the reigning SEC women's basketball player of the year — ran toward Thompson all but pleading for a pass.
"I was just dribbling around and I looked at the shot clock, and there were four seconds left and I saw A'dia but I thought it was too late to pass to her," Thompson said. "So I just stepped back and shot it."
Thompson's step-back trey with 9 seconds left put UK ahead 48-47 with 8 seconds left. Capping a night of late Wildcats heroics, UK's Azia Bishop blocked a driving layup attempt by U of L's Bria Smith just ahead of the final buzzer.
So the first-ever UK-U of L women's hoops game featuring two top 10-ranked teams ended with the Cats, behind for all but the final eight seconds of the second half, on top 48-47 at final buzzer.
It also ended with blue-clad Wildcats backers filling the Yum Center with chants of "Go Big Blue."
In a game in which Kentucky seemed determined to set the all-time record for missed layups and turned the ball over 23 times, it was an impressive display of Wildcats fortitude to still dig out a road victory.
It turned out for UK, where's there's a will, there's a Janee.
"It was an incredible shot," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said of Thompson's game winner. "... She raised up and made a great individual play."
Thompson said she knew her last shot was a game winner from the seconds it left her hand. "Yeah. Definitely. I had confidence it was going in," she said with a smile.
The last-second heroics by Thompson put the cap on a memorable evening for the McDonald's All-America selection who was playing at Whitney Young High School in Chicago this time last season. In a game in which both teams struggled mightily to score, Thompson played with verve. In 16 minutes, she scored 13 points and dished out two assists.
Yet in the first half, she had a front-row seat for an intense, defensive struggle between two teams representing schools that flat don't like each other.
After Mitchell watched his team miss 18 of 25 first-half shots and turn the ball over 14 times before halftime, he said he asked his coaching staff at halftime who he might insert into the game to give the Cats some offensive punch.
Thompson was the suggestion. So with 16:47 left in the game, Thompson made her first appearance.
A nifty Thompson dish to DeNesha Stallworth made brought UK within five, 41-36 with 6:07 left. Then Thompson buried an 18-footer to pull the Cats to four down at 5:34.
"When we got it down to four, I thought 'We can win this thing,'" Mitchell said.
Thompson had her hand in UK's final eight points. Her assist set up a Stallworth layup and pulled UK within 45-42 with 2:15 left.
Louisville was up 46-42 when Thompson was fouled by Shoni Schimmel while attempting a three-pointer with 59 seconds left. With the Yum Center crowd roaring and waving arms to distract the freshman, Thompson drained all three foul shots to pull UK within one point, 46-45.
After Bria Smith made one of two foul shots for Louisville, that gave Kentucky a most unlikely chance to win a game in which it seemed dead in the water for much of the night.
Following four-straight years of alternating blowouts in the UK-U of L series, those who want to see women's hoops continue to grow in the commonwealth were hoping for a memorable game this year that would break through into our state's sports consciousness.
The 2012-13 renewal of UK-U of L did not win any style points. But for those who pledge their allegiance to the Blue, the ending was hard to beat.
All it took was a freshman realizing she was dribbling out the shot clock, then stepping back and draining the first game-winning shot in a Kentucky-Louisville basketball game in the three-year-old Yum Center.
"What can I say?" said U of L Coach Jeff Walz. "The kid made a great shot."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com