Date story published: Sunday, December 28, 2003
The sign asked: Et tu, Pitino?
The game answered: And two, Pitino!
Rick Pitino, forever labeled a back-stabber by Kentucky fans for his roundabout move to archrival Louisville, beat UK for a second straight season yesterday.
Louisville won 65-56 by taking away the twin pillars of Kentucky's game -- its inside attack and transition offense.
Kentucky lost for the first time in 28 regular-season games by abandoning the style that built the school's longest such streak since the mid-1950s -- help defense and patient offense.
"We were not playing our game," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "We were playing their game. That can happen when you take away the inside game like they did."
UK (7-1) rose to a No. 1 ranking in the coaches' poll by dominating around the basket and only sprinkling in a handful of baskets from outside the paint. Against U of L, the Cats launched a whopping 25 three-point shots, made only six shots in the paint and got outrebounded for the first time this season.
Louisville targeted its defense on forwards Erik Daniels and Chuck Hayes, who entered the game with a combined average of 28.7 points. The pair, who Pitino likened to UCLA's former dynamic duo of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, scored only 13 points on 6-for-19 shooting.
"If you're going to give up something, give up the three, which is against my grain," Pitino said of the Louisville plan. "But against their basketball team, we had to do that."
Louisville (7-1) made it work by doubling down on the post whether in man-to-man or the zone that surprised Kentucky. "I don't think we were ready for that," Hayes said. "They're known for pressing and man-to-man defense."
UK did expect the double downs. "We'd been practicing on it all week," Hayes said.
The key, Pitino said, was to trap "while the ball was in the air" rather than wait for Daniels or Hayes to make their patented passes as the trapping players rotated.
"Our defense was a 12 on a 10-point scale," Pitino said. "Especially in transition. We had tremendous trepidation of their transition offense."
Kentucky started well, then almost inevitably succumbed to the urge to shoot quickly from the perimeter. "Yeah, we took a lot of bad shots ... " Smith said. "It became contagious. One guy does it and then everybody does it. A lot has to do with their defense, but that's been a problem for us since Day One."
Kentucky zipped to an early lead, 24-10, a sprint from the gate that recalled last season's 20-9 breakout in Louisville's Freedom Hall.
"It came easy early on and I told the staff, 'Fellas, I'm concerned,' " Smith said. "Because the little things weren't happening."
Not taking charges loomed largest among the little things.
"They kept driving to the basket and no one clogged up the middle or stepped up to take a charge," Smith said. "Once people sense you're going to back down and not take charges and not be physical, you're going to get beat."
Louisville closed within 31-26 by halftime, again a similar constriction to last season's 33-30 intermission lead in Freedom Hall.
The second half completed the similarity to last season's game. Kentucky, which made nine of its first 18 shots (five of 13 from three-point range), hit only 11 of 41 thereafter.
Kentucky, which had trailed for a total of only 67 seconds, grimly clung to the lead because of its defense. The Cats limited Louisville's two best perimeter shooters -- Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean -- to a combined four baskets in the first 36 minutes.
But as U of L inched ahead, thanks in large part to lightly regarded Otis George (13 points and eight rebounds), Garcia and Dean emerged.
With the Cardinals ahead 52-51, Dean hit a three-pointer from the top of the key at the 3:17 mark.
Then after Dean foolishly fouled Gerald Fitch on a three-pointer, resulting in a four-point play that got Kentucky within 57-55, Garcia swished a trey from about the same spot as Dean. That put U of L ahead 60-55 with 1:12 left.
"The glue at the end," Pitino called Garcia and Dean.
Smith had different labels. Dean hit a big shot. And Garcia's three-pointer? "Francisco's was just a dagger to the heart," the UK coach said.
Et tu, Francisco?