UK Men's Basketball

Great rivalry delivers great game

John Clay
John Clay

LOUISVILLE — There was that first Dream Game, of course, the overtime NCAA thriller down in Knoxville that broke the thick and longstanding ice and got this UK-U of L heat wave rolling.

There was Cedric "Swoop" Jenkins' tip, or swat, or whatever it was that gave UK a one-point win in 1987.

There was the Samaki Walker block party that engineered a two-point Louisville upset celebration on New Year's Day in 1995.

There was Patrick Sparks' miracle three clutch free throws with practically no time remaining that gave the Cats a two-point win in 2004.

And then there's, well, there's the fact that while Kentucky-Louisville is always great spectacle, it hasn't always been great basketball.

"This is a great rivalry," said Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach who has experienced it from both sides. "But most of them have not been great basketball games."

Ah, but Sunday afternoon, this final scheduled Cats-Cards clash in the storied history of the soon-to-be-abandoned Freedom Hall was not most of them.

"Tonight," said Pitino, "was a great basketball game."

And not just because, in his eyes, Pitino's embattled point guard, Edgar Sosa, popped out of the doghouse in time to throw in a startling 26-footer with 2.8 seconds left to give the host Cardinals a dramatic 74-71 victory over the visiting Cats.

And not just because Coach Billy Gillispie's never-say-die Wildcats had staged an improbable rally from seven points down to even the score at 71 with 22.9 seconds left, before Sosa hit his sweet (for him) three.

"Like pouring a pound of sugar on top of ice cream," beamed Sosa.

This was a Dream Game that had it all, from driving dunks, to courageous comebacks, to frantic coaches, to a wow finish.

For Louisville, the win boiled down to an inspired effort the back-to-wall Cards needed before entering the brutal Big East.

For Kentucky, the tough road loss boiled down to the three T's — turnovers, technicals and three-pointers.

Yes, that old bugaboo returned as the Cats turned it over 14 times in the first half alone — compared to seven for Louisville — while digging a first-half hole as deep as nine points.

And yet, UK sneaked in front 43-42 less than three minutes into the second half, grabbing its first lead on a Patrick Patterson point-blank bucket when — bam — here came the technical. Before Louisville even had a chance to inbound the ball, referee John Cahill hit Gillispie with a technical foul.

What earned Billy G. the T? Afterward, Gillispie kept saying to ask Cahill, though it had been plainly obvious the UK coach had not been in total agreement with the officials' thinking. But the timing couldn't have been much worse, costing the Cats not just a point when Will Scott made one of two free throws, but also momentum.

By the time the Cats scored again, Louisville had ripped off a dozen straight points to lead 54-43.

Still, yet again, Kentucky fought back — "What I like about that Kentucky team is that they just don't quit," said Pitino — charging to within two at 66-64, then slipping behind again by seven, 71-64, only to strike again, like a snake, to tie it at 71 on two Jodie Meeks free throws with 22.9 seconds left.

Ah, but then came Sosa's sweet, for Louisville, dagger, for Kentucky.

"The story of the game wasn't the last play," argued Gillispie.

More like a continuing story. Louisville entered having drawn its fiery coach's wrath over poor shot selection. The Cards made just six of 15 three-pointers in a loss to UNLV last Wednesday, four of 17 threes in an earlier loss to Minnesota, six of a shot-happy 30 in an even earlier loss to Western Kentucky.

This game: Louisville buried 11 of 20 from behind the stripe.

Sosa, the New York point guard who before Sunday had been riding considerable pine, had made just eight of 38 threes on the season before that final 2.8 seconds.

In fact, back in March 2007, when Sosa was a freshman, and Gillispie was the coach at Texas A&M, he missed what would have been a game-winning three-pointer at the end of a second-round NCAA Tournament game, sending Billy G. and the Aggies on to the Sweet 16 and Louisville home a loser.

"When I shot that shot against A&M I knew it was off," said Sosa. "This one felt awesome."

Much like the game.