There's big games, and then there's UK-UofL

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 27, 2012 

Of course, the game at Louisville on Saturday is nothing new. Kentucky has been playing big games for a long time. Hype builds. Nerves tingle. Stakes rise. Margins for error shrink.

Former UK All-American Frank Ramsey recalled such a game at the end of the 1953-54 season. UK needed only a victory over LSU to achieve the program's first unbeaten season since 1912.

Apparently, the students took victory for granted in those days because their sections in Memorial Coliseum were largely empty at tipoff.

"We were behind at halftime," Ramsey said. "We came out for the second half and the whole student section was filled up."

Even with the student cavalry riding to the rescue from nearby dorms, victory did not come easily. Looking back almost 60 years, Ramsey remembered Adolph Rupp venting during a second-half timeout.

"Just go out there and lose the game!" Rupp snapped at the players.

Said Ramsey: "First time I ever heard him say something like that."

Kentucky rallied to a 63-56 victory to complete what remains UK's last unbeaten season.

As UK fans know so well, there are big games. And then there are games against Louisville.

"Emotions are probably higher in a Louisville game than any other game the whole year," another former UK All-American, Kenny Walker, said. "It's a very tricky game."

Walker recalled the buildup to any UK-U of L game as relentless and omnipresent.

"You knew everywhere you went, you couldn't escape it," he said. "Whether it be the barber shop, the grocery store, the car wash."

Whatever happens in the Yum Center on Saturday surely will pale by comparison to the Kentucky-Louisville game in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. Though separated by no more than 80 miles and each a nationally prominent program, the teams had not played since the 1959 NCAA Tournament. A regular-season UK-U of L game hadn't happened since 1922.

Like North and South Korea arguing about the shape of the table to be used in peace talks, UK and U of L would not — or could not — seriously discuss playing a game.

UK would not recognize U of L as a worthy rival. An unwritten "policy" prevented games against any in-state team, UK Coach Joe B. Hall and Athletics Director Cliff Hagan said.

The NCAA intervened. Two straight years. In 1982, UK's first-round loss to Middle Tennessee prevented a second-round game against U of L. Thankfully, for anyone interested in watching history in the making, Kentucky and Louisville stayed on course in 1983 for a game in the Mideast Region finals at — of all places — Tennessee's quirky Stokely Center.

"After going through the season and having a pretty good year, you think you've seen everything," said Walker, then a freshman. "I hadn't seen anything like that."

Then Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown showed up wearing a sports coat that was half blue and half red.

"Man, this guy is really confused with what he's trying to do," Walker remembered thinking. "I was a freshman. I was just getting used to how much basketball meant to people in Kentucky."

Even media nerves frayed. A television camera man nudged Dirk Minniefield out of the way when the UK guard tried to get in place to inbounds a ball.

Looking back, Walker thanked "older brothers" like Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Jim Master, Derrick Hord, Charles Hurt and Minniefield for helping him deal with the emotional setting.

UK's 80-68 overtime loss left Walker in need of counseling. "I was more shocked," he said. "I was more in disbelief than anything."

On Saturday, No. 4 Louisville will be the only team with older brothers. Walker cited the first five minutes as an indicator of Kentucky's growth as a team and a gauge on the benefits reaped by the so-called Camp Cal experience.

"Emotionally, you don't know what you're going to get with a young team," Walker said of UK. "This is a team trying to find their identity.

"I hope Coach Cal (John Calipari) will convince the players — and I think he will — that all the pressure is on Louisville."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227.Twitter: @JerryTipton.Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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