It didn’t take long for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to get a little taste of the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry.
In his case, the boos began before he even got a chance to put on the Blue and White.
Gilgeous-Alexander — the first UK scholarship recruit to play in the Derby Festival Classic since 2013 — heard it from some U of L fans as he was introduced in pre-game warm-ups at Freedom Hall on Saturday night.
Those fans had come to see four future Louisville Cardinals, but it was Gilgeous-Alexander who stole the show.
The 6-foot-5 guard from Hamilton, Ont., nailed a three-pointer to start the scoring for Team Lightning, and he finished with a game-high 29 points in just 19 minutes on the court, leading his squad to a 122-109 victory over Team Thunder, which featured all four of U of L’s signees for next season.
Gilgeous-Alexander was all smiles after the game, holding his MVP trophy in one hand and his trophy for winning the three-point contest in the other.
“It was fun,” he said. “I got a couple of cheers. Some boos. It was really fun. I can’t wait to get back and play in front of the fans.”
Gilgeous-Alexander did a little bit of everything on the floor, especially in the first half.
He nailed a couple of three-pointers, threw down a dunk in transition, made a putback two off an offensive rebound and had a couple of highlight-reel layups through traffic.
At halftime, he made 12 of 24 three-point attempts to win the Derby Classic shooting contest. As he high-fived his teammates on the court, some U of L fans behind the bench started booing.
Gilgeous-Alexander grinned and gave them a thumbs-down motion with both hands.
“They were booing after I won so I said, ‘Who cares!’” the UK signee recalled with a big smile, gleefully miming the thumbs-down motion.
Gilgeous-Alexander also had nine rebounds and a game-high six assists. He was 12-for-15 from the floor and made both of his three-point attempts.
“I play make first, but if the defense is forcing me to score, I’ll score it,” he said. “I have no problem with that. I’ll take what the defense gives me. I don’t try to shoot too much, do too much. I just try to play in my comfort zone and do what I can do.”
Point guard Darius Perry was the most impressive of the Louisville signees, going for a team-high 22 points and showing off some dazzling moves in the open court.
The MVP of Team Thunder was Taveion Hollingsworth, the only high school player from the state of Kentucky chosen to play in this year’s Derby Classic.
Hollingsworth — a wiry, 6-3 guard — had 18 points and seven rebounds. He showed no fear taking it to the basket against a team of highly touted prospects ranked ahead of him by the national recruiting services.
“Just because of my weight and my height, they think I’m just a shooter,” he said. “Nah. I can take it to the basket whenever.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar Coach Scott Chalk was one of the coaches for Team Thunder on Saturday night, and he was proud of the way his star player performed, noting that he brought that same fire to Friday night’s two-on-two competition.
“I thought he played really well,” Chalk said. “He came out, did what he can do. All weekend, he was impressive. People just don’t realize how good he is yet. They’re starting to catch on, but it’s going to take some time. He’s still got to make believers.
“A lot of guys look bigger than him. They look stronger. He took it right to ’em.”
Hollingsworth, who was this year’s Mr. Basketball and last year’s Sweet Sixteen MVP, will play at Western Kentucky next season.
The only player in the Derby Classic who hasn’t picked a college yet is Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, and he was a focus of attention for the smattering of UK fans in the crowd.
Smith — a 6-5 guard — picked up a scholarship offer from the Wildcats last week and is planning to visit Lexington in the next few days. He was roommates with Gilgeous-Alexander in Louisville this week, and the two were palling around on the court before Saturday night’s game.
“We became good friends,” Smith said. “He’s a great basketball player. But he’s a great person, too. He’s a fun guy to be around and a fun guy to play with.
“He was out here dominating. It would be great to play with Shai.”
Smith had seven points, six rebounds and four assists, playing alongside Gilgeous-Alexander on the victorious Team Lightning.
He’s also considering Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State, among other schools, and he’s expected to make a college decision soon after his visit to Kentucky.
“They love their basketball up here,” he said. “I had a great time up here (in Kentucky). But I still I have to get down to campus and see if I like it.”