Though the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry has turned into a lopsided affair since John Calipari was hired in 2009 — eight of nine have gone the Wildcats’ way, including two in the NCAA Tournament — there’s one game, a little further back in the two teams’ history, that apparently rankled Rick Pitino most.
Asked on his radio show Monday night if he has a favorite memory from the UK-UofL rivalry that he’s experienced so many times from both sides, Pitino turned the question around.
“Not really,” he said. “The one game that bothered me the most was when (Patrick) Sparks traveled. That bothered me the most, and they didn’t call it. But outside of that, no I don’t have one.”
The game Pitino is referring to was played in 2004 and started out terribly for the Cats, who trailed 32-16 in the team’s lowest-scoring first half in more than 20 years.
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Kentucky rallied after halftime, but still trailed 58-57 with 4.8 seconds left when Tubby Smith called a timeout to set up the Cats’ final play. That’s when things got a little wild.
The referee handed Sparks the ball on the baseline for a stationary inbound play. The UK junior guard shuffled his feet to the right — but stayed in his designated area, so he was within the rules — before throwing the ball in to teammate Kelenna Azubuike.
Sparks then raced to the corner, caught a return pass from the immediately double-teamed Azubuike, shuffled his feet again and threw up a wild three-point attempt while drawing a foul from U of L’s Ellis Myles with less than a second on the clock.
Sparks made all three of the ensuing free throws, and UK won 60-58.
The whole sequence was uploaded to YouTube years later — presumably by a U of L fan — with the ’60s hit “Walk Like a Man” serving as background music.
There was no mention of a missed traveling call during ESPN’s original broadcast of the game, but later in the day, CBS announcer Billy Packer noted the travel on national television.
Packer later recalled to the Chicago Tribune:
“I said to Verne (Lundquist): ‘It was a great shot, and you can’t take anything away from the kid, but he traveled before he got the shot off.’ I actually spoke about it for less than 12 seconds, but it became an issue in Kentucky.
“I talked to Tubby about it. We laughed about it. I said: ‘(Sparks) did a jig before he took the shot.’ It was a non-issue except with the paranoid Kentucky people — as if I’m against Kentucky. The guy walked. I say what I see, not try to make people happy in the state of Kentucky.”
Later that season, Sparks would hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime against Michigan State in the Elite Eight, a game that did feature Packer on color commentary. The aftermath of that shot also caused a mini-controversy.
UK’s season ended that day in Texas with a double-OT loss to the Spartans.
Louisville ended up going to its first Final Four under Pitino that season.