LOUISVILLE — University of Kentucky fans wouldn't have wanted to be at the Derby Festival Basketball Classic Saturday night. Fortunately, almost all weren't.
An announced crowd of 6,420 made for a two-thirds empty Freedom Hall as this high school All-Star game celebrated University of Louisville basketball. When UK's only recruit present, Stacey Poole Jr., hit a flurry of shots to advance to the finals of a three-point shooting contest at halftime, boos filled the air.
"Louisville fans are going to talk smack," Poole said afterward. "I expected that."
By contrast, U of L-bound Elisha Justice said he "felt the love." Justice, Kentucky's Mr. Basketball and leader of Shelby Valley's state championship team, contributed 12 points, five assists, five rebounds and a game-high four steals to lead a 133-124 victory by the "Black" team that included three U of L recruits.
"I just try to play hard," Justice said when asked how he compensates for his relative lack of size at a listed 5-foot-11. "I just go out there and give it everything I've got."
At no time did Justice's can-do attitude show itself better than in the second quarter when he found himself the lone defender on a three-on-one fast break.
"I thought I was going to get dunked on," he said.
Instead, Justice jumped high enough and at the right time to deflect the lob pass. Then he got to the loose ball and saved it from going out of bounds to start a fast break the other way.
"My high school coach told me you can't be intimidated," said Justice, looking like a boxer with a butterfly bandage under his right eye. "You can play with anybody. Don't be afraid to take control."
Justice, who committed to U of L last October, rejected UK's 11th-hour attempt to re-open the recruiting process. During introductions, he showed his commitment to the Cardinals by taking off his black warmup jacket to reveal a red Louisville shirt. He sounded eager to try to live up to comparisons to two former feisty, if small, Rick Pitino players: Billy Donovan and Travis Ford.
U of L-bound Justin Coleman led the winning team with three three-pointers and 24 points. Big man Gorgui Sy Dieng, who was voted his team's Most Valuable Player, added 15 points, seven rebounds and eight blocks. Russ Smith, the fourth Louisville recruit, had 12 points and five assists.
Although he's not an accomplished shooter by reputation, Poole used a late flurry to tie UCLA-bound Tyler Lamb in the three-point contest. He made only three threes through the first 40 seconds of the one-minute contest. Then after making eight in the final 20 seconds, Poole pounded his chest as he ran toward halfcourt.
The largely U of L-partisan crowd filled Freedom Hall with boos.
In the shootout to determine the winner, Lamb made five three-pointers in 30 seconds while Poole made four.
During the game, Poole made five of 15 shots (0-for-3 from three-point range). He finished with 10 points and five rebounds.
"My shot's looking good," he said before adding, "I just got to keep working on it."
Coleman won the dunk contest with a memorable effort. A Louisville recruiting target, Dieng, used his feet to flick the ball off the floor and into the air. On a glide path to the basket, Coleman caught the ball in mid-air and rammed home a reverse dunk.
That brought the three judges out of their seats, each holding up a card reading "10," which won Coleman the dunk contest by acclimation.
The Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic had its first turnover before tip-off. The singer of the national anthem forgot the words about midway through his rendition.
After an awkward pause, he fast-forwarded to "gallantly streaming" and proceeded to the finish without further incident.
When he gave the finishing "home of the brave" a soulful flourish, the forgiving crowd cheered.