Twelve and a half seconds left and his team trailing by two points in what will almost certainly be the toughest environment they play in all season, Damion Lee walked over to his coach and made a request.
“I want the ball,” Lee told Louisville’s Rick Pitino. “Give me the ball. I want the last shot.”
Pitino was in no position to turn him down.
Lee, a graduate transfer who played his first three seasons at Drexel, had carried the Cardinals all afternoon in raucous Rupp Arena, scoring 27 points, playing all 40 minutes and leading a late comeback when everything was going Kentucky’s way.
The 6-foot-6 forward got the ball with about 5 seconds left. UK’s Alex Poythress switched to defend him, and Lee stepped back toward the corner to set up the final shot.
“Poythress stepped out on me, and I thought that I could get a good step on him,” Lee said. “I stepped back and tried to shoot the three for the game-winner.
“I didn’t want to leave the game in the refs’ hands — maybe call a foul or not call a foul — knowing that we’re down two. (I was) confident in myself and my game, and I wanted to go for the kill.”
Lee rose up, Poythress with him, and let it fly.
Poythress defended the shot well but said after the game he didn’t want to turn around and see the result for himself. The explosion of relief from the Rupp crowd let him know how it ended. Kentucky 75, Louisville 73.
For us, it’s finishing and executing later on down the stretch. Because in ACC play, we are going to be going into some more hostile environments.
U of L’s Damion Lee
“Missed it,” Lee said in the U of L locker room with a grimace.
Freshman Donovan Mitchell immediately went to Lee’s side, offering words of encouragement.
“I’ve been there in high school — missed game-winners — and I’ve always wanted somebody to be there and talk to me,” Mitchell said. “Even though I’m a few years younger than him, it’s always good to have someone in your ear and say that. ‘Look, you got us here. Don’t let this shot define what you’ve done. We could have done certain things as a team. Don’t let the whole game feel like it’s on your shoulders.’”
If not for Lee, the Cardinals wouldn’t have been close at the end.
Until Mitchell made a basket to pull U of L within 52-40 with 14:15 left in the game, Lee and fellow grad transfer Trey Lewis were the only Cardinals with more than two points.
Lee scored his team’s final eight points of the first half. He made several plays in the middle of the second half to keep Louisville within reach as the Rupp Arena crowd was at its loudest.
Down 10 points with 7 minutes left, Lee started a 9-0 Cardinals run that ended with his three-pointer to cut the deficit to 65-64 with 5:34 remaining. He had scored seven of the Cardinals’ last 12 points leading up to that final shot.
No. 16 Louisville (11-2) gets a week off before starting conference play next Sunday with a home game against Wake Forest. Lee says the Cards can learn from their only two losses so far — to UK and No. 1 Michigan State.
“We fight. But we have to end that fight at the end of the game,” he said. “Our two losses were in hostile environments against two great teams. The game was in the balance for most of the game in both games, and we came out with losses.
“So for us, it’s finishing and executing later on down the stretch. Because in ACC play, we are going to be going into some more hostile environments.”