Date story published: Sunday, December 19, 2004
LOUISVILLE -- Though the outcome of one of the most dramatic "Dream Games" rested in his hands, Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks had to wait ... and wait -- to throw the win-or-lose lever.
The referees first had to check a sideline monitor to determine how much time was left when Sparks was fouled. That took an eternity, as basketball time passes. Watching Sparks loiter near halfcourt, UK Coach Tubby Smith fretted.
"I kept telling him to come over, to come over," Smith said. "I don't think he wanted to."
As coach-player relationships dictate, Sparks finally walked over to Smith.
"Hey," Smith said, presumably with as much nonchalance as he could muster at the end of a spine-tingler, even by Kentucky-Louisville standards. "What are you going to get for Christmas?"
Sparks smiled. Smith smiled.
After the referees confirmed the foul call, Sparks finished unwrapping the best present a Kentucky basketball player, coach or fan could want. He swished three free throws with six-tenths of a second left to give UK a 60-58 victory over U of L.
"I just wanted to step up there and not think about nothing," Sparks said, a double negative summing up the triple-negative he coolly delivered on the archrival Cardinals.
Those free throws capped Sparks' season-high 25-point game and one of the greatest second-half comebacks in Kentucky's storied basketball history. The lowest scoring first half since 1983 (an 11-7 halftime lead against Cincinnati in a pre-shot clock, slowdown game) left Kentucky trailing 32-16.
Louisville (6-2) rode defense and aggressive play to seemingly full command. The Cards outrebounded UK 22-13 in the first half and limited the Cats to three baskets after the first two minutes. UK made three of 21 shots (14.3 percent) in that span.
Cue halftime fire and brimstone. "We all kind of lost a little of our religion," Smith said of the fiery oration he and his assistants delivered. "I apologize."
Kentucky (7-1) also made a tactical adjustment. The Cats conceded their assumed advantage inside and went small. "We just couldn't stop them inside," Smith said of the first half. "Especially (Ellis) Myles and (Juan) Palacios. They were just too active and too quick for our inside people."
Big things came from the smaller package. Led by Sparks, who scored 18 second-half points, the Cats matched the 1994 Mardi Gras victory at Louisiana State, the so-called Don't-give-up, don't-ever-give-up game.
Against LSU a decade ago, Kentucky's three-point arsenal made any deficit manageable. The Cats rallied from 31 down with less than 16 minutes left.
This time UK, which had been outshot from three-point range this season, still trailed 54-44 with less than five minutes left.
"Was I worried?" Chuck Hayes said, repeating the question. "I wouldn't say worried. I just kept looking at the clock. We were playing Louisville and the clock."
In a sense, the clock was a Kentucky ally. Louisville had fewer contributors, especially after Palacios, the first half's leading scorer with 11 points, left three minutes into the second because of an abrasion on his left cornea.
U of L Coach Rick Pitino felt no need to explain the importance of losing one of his few front-line reserves.
"You can answer that yourself," he quietly told a reporter.
Louisville visibly tired down the stretch. Forced shots, turnovers and one basket in the final 5:11 served as evidence.
Meanwhile, the comeback energized Kentucky, especially the pugnacious Sparks. In one stretch, he scored 12 straight UK points to reduce Louisville's lead to 54-50.
Kelenna Azubuike's two free throws put Kentucky ahead 55-54 with 1:27 left. That marked the Cats' first lead since 5-4.
The rivals traded the lead three times in the next 72 seconds. Larry O'Bannon, who led U of L with 16 points, put the Cards ahead 58-57 with 15.2 seconds left.
Plenty of time for move-counter move.
After a UK timeout with 10.9 seconds left, the plan apparently broke down, leaving Sparks holding the ball, fresh out of dribbling options, and defended. He had presence of mind to call time with 4.8 seconds left.
"A very heads-up play," Smith said.
UK sent 7-foot-3 Shagari Alleyne in as a decoy, hoping to force U of L to think about defending a lob. The Cats intended to get Azubuike a shot from the corner.
But Sparks' soft inbounds gave Louisville time to trap Azubuike, who dribbled up the sideline away from the basket.
"I was afraid Kelenna was going to shoot it," Associate Coach David Hobbs said.
Azubuike passed over the trap to Sparks, who had stepped over the end line after inbounding the ball.
Two Louisville defenders rushed at Sparks, who pump-faked. That lifted Myles off the floor and into Sparks' air space. Sparks and Myles came together as the UK player went up for the shot.
Pitino lamented two mental mistakes -- leaving Sparks open to receive the pass and then committing the foul -- and linking them to fatigue.
"Fatigue does that to you sometimes," the U of L coach said. "You make mental mistakes when you're tired."
Sparks, who went to the line on a streak of 13 straight makes, calmly waited to shoot the free throws.
"It didn't bother me," Sparks said. "I just wanted to get up there, knock them down and get out of here."