LOUISVILLE — Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein may have missed six free throws down the stretch, but he nailed the description of Kentucky's 80-77 loss to archrival Louisville on Saturday.
"It was one of those roller-coaster games," he said.
UK's collective stomach lurched up into its collective throat when a breath-taking dip put Louisville on top by 17 points early in the second half.
Then, improbably, from this depth came a climb higher and higher until it seemed the momentum would whiz the Cats to victory.
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That it didn't happen took Kentucky from exhilaration to what could be considered this annual basketball carnival's haunted house.
"Real depressing," Cauley-Stein said. "That's going to be with us the rest of the season, now."
Perhaps to ease the burden and lessen any chance of long-term fallout, UK Coach John Calipari took the blame.
"I told my team ... you get us close, I'll help us get over the edge," he said. "You just make it close, and they did."
Kentucky (8-4) got as close as 63-61 with more than five minutes left, then rallied again to get possession of the ball trailing only 78-74 with 33 seconds left (an eternity for a foul-plagued U of L team staggering toward the finish line).
But another freshman, Archie Goodwin, threw a desperation pass across court that Gorgui Dieng intercepted. Dieng fed a pass to Chane Behanan, who somehow stood alone at the other end of the court. Behanan, who scored 20 points, dunked.
"I didn't call timeout," Calipari said in the first of several second-guesses of his coaching. "Believe me, I was standing there thinking, 'Timeout, timeout, timeout.' And I didn't call it. That effectively ended the game. ...
"As soon as he threw the ball away, I looked to (assistant coach) John Robic (and said), 'What was I thinking?'"
His freshman-dependent team needed a coach's calming strategy, Calipari said. When asked why he didn't call the timeout, he said the questioner would "have to get in my head" to find the answer.
"This one was on me," Calipari said.
The UK coach joked about the strategy he might have used had he called the time-out. "I would have set up a four-point play, and the game would have gone into overtime," he said. Coincidentally, Goodwin, who led UK with 22 points, hit a three-pointer while being fouled to narrow the deficit to 77-74 in the final minute.
Cauley-Stein did not accept the notion of Calipari falling on his sword.
"Nah," he said. "B.S."
Oddly for such a compelling game, regret abounded.
UK trailed 36-28 at halftime. That marked the Cats' largest halftime deficit since falling behind 36-25 at Notre Dame, coincidentally the last time UK played on an opponent's court.
Louisville scrambled the beginning of the second half to disastrous effect for Kentucky. Inside the first two minutes, UK committed turnovers on four straight possessions and received a bench technical foul (apparently for protesting a non-call).
Louisville stretched its lead to 51-34 with less than 15 minutes left.
"We played great," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "But what happens to a team that lives by pressure and denial is that you get into foul trouble. It's like suddenly you let all the air out of the balloon. You lose all your intensity."
Dieng and U of L's standout guards — Russ Smith (21 points) and Peyton Siva (19 points) — all picked up their fourth fouls in the first 11 minutes of the second half.
The Cardinals' reliance on broken-floor play backfired. It left Kyle Wiltjer open for back-to-back three-pointers within a 35-second span.
Those shots sparked new life that Louisville found impossible to extinguish. Less than two minutes after trailing by 17, the Cats reduced the deficit to 51-44.
"It was bonehead play by us," Pitino said of Wiltjer being left open in transition. "Sometimes you can lose your man (in man-to-man defense), but in a zone, that's impossible."
Kentucky got as close as 63-61 with 5:31 left on a Ryan Harrow jumper in a broken-floor situation.
Unlike at Notre Dame exactly a month earlier, Kentucky fought. Calipari, the fall guy, could take a bow for instilling the competitiveness and sense of urgency in his so-called Camp Cal. Asked if he saw the fruit of that labor, he said, "Yeah, I did."
Pitino saluted his rival.
"I marvel at what he does with young players," the U of L coach said. "Two weeks ago, quite frankly, I didn't think they were a very good basketball team. And now, they're a hell of a basketball team."