LOUISVILLE — Muscle, grit and willpower were the only valuable currencies in the Kentucky-Louisville game Saturday. The smallest player on the court looked like the wealthiest man.
Tyler Ulis, a 5-foot-9 freshman whose David-and-Goliath exploits long ago captured the hearts of Kentucky fans, delivered a big-time performance as Kentucky won 58-50.
UK Coach John Calipari had said his high-rolling team needed a punch in the face, figuratively speaking. Well, Ulis took an elbow late in the first half that opened a cut over his right eye and required three stitches to close. He kept on keeping on.
Those in search of a metaphor needed to look no further.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"You've got to leave it all on the floor," teammate Karl-Anthony Towns said. "Tyler Ulis always does that. When you have a person like that, it motivates all of us."
Ulis scored a career-high 14 points, all of which loomed large in a game that had as many fouls as baskets (36). The second of his back-to-back pull-up jumpers gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead with 6:17 left.
Maybe more importantly, Ulis gave UK steady point guard play (no turnovers in 26 minutes) in a charged KFC Yum Center atmosphere and against an inspired archrival well-equipped to disrupt Kentucky's offense.
That Ulis played well was no coincidence, the player's father said. "If it's a big game, he's coming to play. That's his M.O.," James Ulis said.
Certainly, Ulis' play was well-timed given how starting point guard Andrew Harrison struggled. Harrison committed six turnovers, which equaled a career high.
Calipari saluted Ulis. "That's the best I've seen him play since I've coached him," he said.
But without the prompting of a question, Calipari seemed to anticipate a Ulis-versus-Harrison debate and tried to kill it immediately.
"This will start the other dialogue," said Calipari, who noted a three-pointer Harrison made. "That basically ended the game," he said.
Harrison's three, his only basket in six shots, put UK ahead 50-38 with 4:44 left.
"Andrew took us to the championship game last year," Calipari reminded reporters. "Andrew did. So what I have is two terrific point guards who I can play together, if I choose."
Thanks, in large part, to Ulis, Kentucky (13-0) found the resolve, heretofore not needed, to win. It was the first time this season UK had not won by a double-digit margin.
Louisville lost for the first time and slipped to 11-1. The Cards avoided the lowest-point total of Rick Pitino's time as coach (45 in a victory over Cleveland State on Nov. 26). The 50 points equaled the sixth-lowest total for a Pitino team at U of L.
The lowest-scoring first half for either team featured plenty of defense, hustle and intensity.
UK led 22-18 at intermission. The score was in stark contrast to what the teams were used to this season. Kentucky had averaged 37.8 points in first halves; Louisville, 37.7.
Louisville made only six of 28 first-half shots, and made only two shots in the final 11:06.
If one play typified a defense-oriented half, it came inside the final two minutes. Louisville's Mangok Mathiang, a 6-10 sophomore, found himself at the basket, but practically surrounded by defenders.
A pump-fake caused two UK defenders to jump and, thus, take themselves out of the play. But as Mathiang rose for a seemingly unmolested shot, Marcus Lee arrived and blocked the shot.
With Ulis scoring 12 of his points in the second half, Kentucky kept its lead.
Pitino noted the wearing effect of Kentucky's size, then added that "because they have so many 'bigs,' you don't notice (Ulis). He's a true point guard who makes people better. I've loved him from the moment I started watching him. He's a great point guard. That's a program you can build around a great point guard."
Calipari lauded Ulis, too. When asked what drew him to the guard in the recruiting process, the UK coach said, "His competitiveness. He can make a difference in a game even at his size, and that's what you want.
"And he wasn't afraid of a challenge. I didn't have to beg him. I recruited him for (only) three weeks."
That fearlessness and competitiveness was on display in the Yum Center for all to see.
Towns said Ulis "played amazing."
"That's one of the things against a team like this — you need to make sure everything is under control. He kept the game under control.
"He was just pretty, pretty, pretty good today. Pretty good."