LOUISVILLE — The old guys finally won one. After three years of flaming youth prevailing in this Kentucky-Louisville basketball series, with Kentucky's fantastic freshmen topping Louisville's grizzled veterans, experience showed it matters this time around, which was a good thing.
Or at least it was a good thing for Louisville, the host Cardinals of Rick Pitino snapping a three-year, four-game losing streak to John Calipari's Cats with an 80-77 win in a rabid and entertaining renewal at the KFC Yum Center.
Though truth be told, for once you could say that both teams got what they wanted — almost. Pitino and Louisville finally got the best of Calipari on the scoreboard, yet this Kentucky team finally showed the competitive never-say-die spirit that its coach had long been craving.
After all, Louisville, the nation's fourth-ranked team, was rolling on the river, holding a 17-point cushion, 51-34, five minutes into the second half. It was at that point in time that Louisville looked every bit the odds-on favorites for the national championship that Calipari had pronounced the Redbirds to be on Friday.
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But Kentucky didn't pack up and head for the bus. The Cats clawed back, made some tough shots, and the next thing you know Planet Red had its heart it in is throat, and we had a three-point game with five minutes to play.
"There was no fight in this team, no sense of urgency. There was today," said Calipari, who instead was kicking himself for not calling a time out late with the outcome still hanging in the balance.
Louisville is a team that has developed the old-fashioned way — at least by UK's standards — building block-by-building block. The Cards now have a senior point guard in Peyton Siva and a junior wingman in Russ Smith, possibly the nation's best backcourt. UK started three freshmen. Louisville started a senior and two juniors.
By conventional standards that should mean something, and this time it did. It showed when Louisville built its sizable lead, its aggressiveness feasting on UK's youthful errors. (Fast break points: Louisville 20, Kentucky two.) It showed when the Cards survived Kentucky's frantic onslaught down the stretch.
With 6:34 to go, there were Siva, Smith and center Gorgui Dieng all on the floor with four fouls. The lead was a tenuous four, 63-59. In the end, however, only Siva fouled out, and that was with 33.7 seconds left. The Cards won by three, with two plays standing out.
Just under three minutes left, Louisville up 69-64, the shot clock winding down and Chane Behanan, a sophomore who had a terrific game, passed up a rushed shot in favor of a deft pass to an open Dieng. Nerlens Noel goal-tended and the Louisville lead was back to seven.
Nearly a full minute later, after Archie Goodwin had drained the first of his three three-pointers in the final 121 seconds, the Cats appeared to have Siva trapped in the backcourt. Somehow, Siva slithered away, dribbled ahead of a pursuing Willie Cauley-Stein, then stopped on a dime, allowing the UK freshmen to run up his back for a foul. It was a veteran move. Siva sank both free throws. Louisville led 75-67.
Ah, free throws. The reason for the Big Blue Nation's Saturday night frown. Louisville made 17 of 25. Kentucky missed 12 of 23. Officially. The Cats actually missed two more, but twice Cauley-Stein's misfires were erased when Louisville stepped too early into the foul lane. Cauley-Stein proceeded to miss both second chances.
"I didn't do my part," Calipari kept saying afterward, no doubt trying to place the loss on his own shoulders and off his players, even if there was no need for that, given the heroic way his team tried late.
In fact, for once, the game went the way these things are supposed to go, or were supposed to go before Calipari appeared to scoop up star recruits and magically turn future stardom into instant success.
"I told the CBS guys before the game I thought this was the first year that we had as much talent as them," said Pitino. "Quite frankly, I thought we had more talent than them because our talent is more experienced."
Kentucky's talent got a positive experience Saturday. And if you are a Kentucky fan, you feel better a lot better in defeat than you probably thought you would feel after a loss to Louisville — a talented and experienced Louisville.
This time, that was the difference.