Date story published: Sunday, December 30, 2001
Rick Pitino came. He saw. But he did not conquer.
The Kentucky players saw to that with a big second half that propelled the Cats to an 82-62 victory over Pitino-coached Louisville yesterday.
Much of the pre-game hype revolved around the return of Pitino, the former UK coaching hero who joined the archrival Cardinals last spring. Visions of Pitino reviving U of L as he did Kentucky a decade ago excited Louisville fans and sent a shudder through Big Blue Nation.
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For a half, Pitino's coaching mystique hung heavy in Rupp Arena. Then UK's superior talent delivered a sobering slap.
"They thought they were going to come in here and Rick Pitino was going to send them to the promised land," UK point guard Cliff Hawkins said. "It don't work like that."
Yes, steak usually trumps sizzle. Talent usually prevails.
No. 6 Kentucky took charge early in the second half. The Cats reeled off 12 straight points to take a 50-37 lead with 15 minutes left. Later, the Cats ripped off a 15-0 run that buried Louisville.
The coach who dominated post-game conversation was UK's Tubby Smith.
"We got a good halftime speech from coach," freshman reserve Adam Chiles said in explaining the Cats' second-half surge. "(Smith said) that we were being outhustled and out-rebounded and outworked in all the aspects of the game. We came out and really performed."
UK's leaders, Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans, led the turnaround. They scored Kentucky's first 11 points of the second half, and 17 of the first 18. That propelled the Cats toward their eighth victory in 10 games.
"Their experience got to us," Pitino said of the turn of events.
Bogans, who broke out of a slump with 17 points, noted that no instruction came for him and Prince to take charge. "It just happened that way," he said.
Kentucky and Louisville spent much of the first half imprisoned in a disjointed competition.
Prince, who scored a game-high 18 points, cited the game's distracting hype as a reason for an emotionally charged but ineffective first half.
"I thought we were anxious," he said. "We dribbled the ball too much. In the second half, we slowed things down and ran our offense and opened players up for better shots."
Prince directed the action. Besides the points, he also had nine rebounds, three assists and only one turnover in a 31-minute display of all-around court savvy. "He did everything in the arsenal," freshman Rashaad Carruth said.
Despite a decided advantage inside, Kentucky took almost as many three-pointers (16) as two-point shots (19) in the first half. The dominating second half saw the Cats take 26 shots inside the arc and only nine three-pointers.
"We were settling" for three-pointers, Hawkins said of the first half. "Coach said they were being more aggressive and physical. In the second half, we wanted to be more aggressive and that had to do with going to the basket."
Of UK's 18 second-half baskets, only three came outside the lane. Most memorable was a Hawkins driving layup destined for UK's video celebration of the season.
With the Cats having already scored eight straight points to take a 71-50 lead, Hawkins found himself in transition 18 feet from the basket guarded by U of L center Joseph N'Sima.
Hawkins hesitated, then left the befuddled N'Sima with a crossover dribble from left to right. Seemingly in an instant, Hawkins was at the basket banking in a layup while N'Sima remained stock still.
"I was just going to freeze him and get him on his heels," Hawkins said. "I had no idea I was going to lose him like that."
When told it looked like he was going to pull the ball out and run time off the clock, Hawkins said, "I started to. Then I saw all the other defenders turn their heads and I saw the guy guarding me standing straight up. I knew if I changed direction real quick, he'd have a hard time recovering."
Kentucky, which shot 51.4 percent in the second half, was effective defensively, too.
Louisville made only six of its first 29 shots in the second half. And during a stretch that saw UK expand its lead from 38-37 to its zenith (78-50), the Cards made only four of 26 shots.
Kentucky limited U of L's leading scorer, Reece Gaines, to a season-low 10 points.
Smith called it "a marvelous team defense" on Gaines. "One man couldn't shut him down," the UK coach said. "We did a good job of switching out, making him have to work to get shots."
U of L (9-2) came into the game hoping to ride Pitino's signature style of three-point shooting and full-court pressing to an upset. In Pitino's first season, the Cards had not established a prowess for three-point shooting. So no surprise that Louisville made only four of 19.
But Kentucky also made Louisville's press a non-factor.
"We never allowed them to make a run, and that was a big key," Smith said. "If they make steals and get momentum, they can hurt you in a hurry."