As a little boy growing up in Richmond, many was the time that ‘the Kentucky-Louisville game’ hung in the balance with the basketball in the hands of Dominique Hawkins.
“Me and my friends, we used to always pretend back on an outside goal (that it was Kentucky vs. Louisville),” Hawkins said. “One of my friends was a Louisville fan; I’m a Kentucky fan. We did, like, a 2-on-2 game.”
On Saturday in Rupp Arena, Hawkins found himself with an unlikely chance to live his boyhood dreams.
Thrust into a crucial role by a pre-game ankle injury to Kentucky starting guard Isaiah Briscoe, Hawkins — with one notable exception — handled himself like a guy who had been under Cats-Cards game-deciding pressure his entire life.
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The former Madison Central star had a career-high 13 points and scored UK’s final five of the game. That allowed the No. 12 Wildcats (10-2) to stave off a determined comeback by No. 16 Louisville (11-2) to win 75-73 before 24,412 in Rupp.
The victory gave John Calipari his 200th win as UK head coach and his eighth victory in nine meetings as Cats head man over Rick Pitino and Louisville.
To be a Kentuckian and play this well, I’m just blessed.
For all the strong play from Tyler Ulis (21 points, eight assists, one turnover) and Alex Poythress (14 points, six rebounds), Kentucky would not have continued its mastery of Pitino and U of L without Hawkins.
“To be a Kentuckian and play this well, I’m just blessed,” the junior guard said. “(I) really can’t put it into words. It’s beyond whatever ‘amazing’ is.”
When Briscoe stepped on someone’s foot during pre-game warmups and could not go, Calipari tabbed freshman Charles Matthews to start in his place.
Matthews, however, got into quick foul trouble. Meanwhile, muscular U of L guard Trey Lewis lit up the Cats for 12 early points.
Calipari turned to the 6-foot, 190-pound Hawkins.
Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Basketball had played 68 minutes all year before Saturday. Yet he immediately got Lewis (three more points the rest of the way) under control defensively.
“I played him where he couldn’t shoot the ball that well,” Hawkins said. “I wanted to make him drive into the (UK) bigs so we could get some blocked shots.”
In his days leading Madison Central to the 2013 state championship, Hawkins was a shot maker himself. Before Saturday, however, that had never translated to his college career.
Yet the guy who hit all of two three-pointers in his entire freshman season (2013-14), drained his first one Saturday with 6:19 left in the first half. It cut a 34-30 Louisville lead to one and brought the Rupp crowd to a roar.
With 2:39 remaining before halftime, the guy who hit all of five three-pointers as a sophomore drained another one from the left wing.
Hawkins’ second trey pushed Kentucky ahead 34-33. It was part of a 22-2 run that turned a 34-30 Louisville advantage late in half one into a 52-36 Wildcats lead with 17:50 left in the game.
Still, Hawkins’ biggest moments were yet to come.
After Louisville’s Damion Lee (27 points) led a ferocious, late-game U of L charge, the Cats found themselves clinging to a 70-68 lead inside the game’s final three minutes.
With Kentucky’s half-court offense stagnating, the ball found its way to Hawkins on the right wing. The guy who had made all of one three pointer so far this season rose up and buried a trey for a 73-68 lead.
Less than a minute later, the 50-percent career foul shooter found himself going to the line for a one-and-one. Hawkins sank both to put Kentucky ahead 75-70 with 1:57 left.
That was enough cushion to allow UK, then up 75-73, to survive the shot-clock violation Hawkins took with 12.5 seconds left. “I just screwed up on that,” Hawkins said.
After Louisville’s Lee missed a contested three-pointer from the deep corner for the win, it didn’t matter. After two years and 12 games of what had been a frustrating UK career, Dominique Hawkins was a Wildcats hero.
Said Ulis: “Dom stepped up for us. He hit some big shots.”
Added Calipari: “(Hawkins) never changed his demeanor the whole time. He defended. He’ll fight like crazy. … One of the great kids of all time. You want him to do so well, but he’s got to do it.”
On Saturday, in the game that brings our state to a boil, Hawkins did it.
Who knows, maybe he played so well under the unique pressure that is Kentucky-Louisville because, in those long-ago backyard games, he had been there before.
“Even back then, ‘Kentucky’ usually won,” Dominique Hawkins said, beaming.