LOUISVILLE — It's almost become part of Kentucky's rivalry ritual with Louisville the past few seasons: fall behind by double digits and then make a dramatic comeback.
The previous two seasons, UK battled back from 14 points down. The Cats deviated from that slightly this time, trailing by 16 points to the No. 7 Cardinals before winning 77-68 on Sunday.
"It's a great win for these players because they had to fight for it and they had to dig down deep and find a way," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said of the win, which tied for the largest comeback of his tenure. "I'm just so appreciative, proud of their effort, not giving up, not giving in."
He was anything but proud of his players from the tip, which the Cats won, but then promptly fumbled right back to Louisville, which laid it in easily.
That trend continued for the better part of the first half with the No. 13 Cats falling behind 32-16 after a Sara Hammond free throw with 6:44 to go before the break.
UK carried a 42-29 deficit into the half, but things changed in a hurry for the Cats, who won their fourth in a row in the rivalry and halted Louisville's eight-game win streak to start the season.
"It was surely a game they could've folded it in and could've said it was not our day and lost that one, but they found a way to keep battling, made some adjustments to their attitude at halftime," Mitchell said.
It was mostly in effort and hustle, the players said afterward, including a big turnaround for Janee Thompson, who finished with a game-high 19 points, all but three coming in the second half.
"We came out a lot more aggressive with a lot more energy," said Thompson, who hit the go-ahead basket for UK at the KFC Yum Center two seasons ago. "We started things on the defensive end and that's always our formula: Once our defense is going, our offense was there."
A Louisville team that made 51.7 percent of its shots in the first half was held to 24.1 percent shooting in the second half, including zero points in a four-minute span in which UK scored 12 unanswered.
The Cardinals, whose most turnovers in a game this season was 19, coughed the ball up 28 times, which UK turned into 27 points.
Kentucky, which struggled with post players in foul trouble the entire game, went small and was able to capitalize, making 55.6 percent of its shots in the second half.
The Cats trailed 53-40 with 13:23 to go and then made their big run. A made free throw by Thompson gave Kentucky (8-1) its first lead of the game with 6:16 to play.
The junior guard had a huge three-pointer with 2:57 to play that tied the game again 66-66, and then Kentucky outscored the Cardinals 11-2 from there.
It was more about effort than X's and O's, Mitchell said.
"There's no in-between with our team," he said. "We have to play like our hair is on fire all the time because we're not going to out-talent you."
UK had five players finish in double figures, including senior Jennifer O'Neill's 17 points and five rebounds. Sophomore guard Linnae Harper added 12 points, 10 coming in the second half, and a team-high eight rebounds.
Bria Goss added 11 points and Makayla Epps 10 points and four rebounds for Kentucky, which was outrebounded 46-34 by the bigger Cardinals.
Louisville (8-1) was led by Myisha Hines-Allen's 17 points and nine rebounds; Bria Smith added 15 points. Hammond, a Miss Basketball from Rockcastle County, finished with 11 points.
"It was a game you hate to lose after the way we played for 30 minutes," Cards Coach Jeff Walz said. "We wore down and our lack of depth started to show."