On Saturday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari offered a sobering assessment of a heart-bumping victory over North Carolina. It proved only that UK could beat any good team or lose to any good team.
Wednesday’s game at archrival Louisville re-enforced that conclusion.
Louisville beat Kentucky 73-70 in a game that could have been won by either side.
UK, which fell to 10-2, hurt itself by missing five of nine free throws inside the final 3:13. Calipari cited a lack of discipline, perhaps inevitable with a freshman-dependent team, as a factor. It seemed to loom large in a possession-by-possession grinder of a game.
“It’s Dec. 21,” Calipari said. “We’re not ready to go on an opponent’s court, a top 10 opponent, and win. Thank God, it’s Dec. 21.”
No doubt, the home court and a raucous crowd helped Louisville and unnerved Kentucky.
“Not many environments like this in the country,” said point guard D’Aaron Fox, who led UK with 21 points. “We probably won’t go into another arena like this.”
The Cards won a 54th time in the last 55 games against non-conference opponents in the Yum Center. U of L’s overall record in the Yum Center improved to 107-14.
Kentucky did not wilt despite a relative off game by Malik Monk. Of course, it almost had to be an off game after Monk scored 47 points in the victory over North Carolina and was named National Player of the Year by the United States Basketball Writers Association.
Monk missed as many three-point shots as he made against North Carolina. He was one of nine from beyond the arc. But the one he made was big. It came with 10.4 seconds and reduced UK’s deficit to 71-70.
But Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell made two free throws with 8.2 seconds left to ease the tension.
Then Monk missed his final three-point attempt in the final seconds. He finished with 16 points. Bam Adebayo chipped in 11.
Quentin Snider led Louisville with 22 points.
A 40-39 halftime lead was a testament to Kentucky’s ability to compete without Monk. He picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 8:52 left in the first half.
Calipari cited lack of discipline as a factor in Monk’s early fouls. Fox said those fouls and having to go to the bench prevented Monk from getting on track.
“He came back in the second half trying to get his rhythm . . . ,” Fox said. “We never told him not to shoot or hesitate.”
With Monk, Kentucky’s offense sputtered. The Cats flashed their ability to score early in possessions. Three times inside the first three minutes, UK scored within eight seconds of gaining possession, twice after Louisville scores.
But Kentucky, which came into the game as the nation’s third-most prolific scoring team (95.2 ppg), had only 22 points with less than seven minutes left in the half.
UK scored 18 points in the final 6:23 to erase a 29-22 deficit and take a one-point lead into intermission.
Perhaps trying to fill the vacuum created by Monk’s fouls, Fox scored nine of those points. That included UK’s final five points.
Fox, who came into the game averaging 12.6 shots, took 11 in the first half.
As the second half began, Monk’s three-point play on a fast-break put the Cats ahead 43-42.
Louisville scored the next five points to take a 47-43 lead into the first TV timeout. Jaylen Johnson posted up Wenyen Gabriel for a basket, then Snider hit a long high-arcing three-pointer.
Foul trouble clouded Kentucky’s chances for victory. Isaiah Briscoe picked up his third foul with 16:20 left, then went to the bench after his fourth foul at the 12:54 mark.
With Fox already having three fouls and Monk no three-point baskets (in five attempts), it appeared Kentucky would have to win without its three-headed star backcourt leading the way.
As the second half unfolded, a deciding shot in the final minute seemed inevitable.
Louisville twice took five-point leads, but could not expand the margin.
Fox’s driving layup with 8:16 left gave Kentucky its largest second-half lead to that point: 55-53.
Monk’s driving layup put UK ahead 57-53 with 6:53 left. That marked only his second basket of the half.
Louisville scored the next eight points, prompting a Kentucky timeout with 5:33 left.
To borrow a football term, perhaps inspired by a halftime salute of U of L Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, neither team was getting separation in this game.
Kentucky at Mississippi
Dec. 29, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)