Never mind the color of your clothes, or the name on your diploma, or the side of the fence from which you root.
If you’re a fan of college basketball, if you’re a fan of the Kentucky-Louisville college basketball rivalry, then your real present came the day after Christmas.
In the nine times that the Hall of Fame coaches John Calipari and Rick Pitino have faced each other as the leaders at Kentucky and Louisville, respectively, the Cats’ dramatic 75-73 win over the Cardinals inside an electrified Rupp Arena was surely the best of the bunch.
From a mysterious pregame injury, to frantic in-game comebacks, to unexpected home state heroes, to clutch three-pointers, to dueling technical fouls, to hair-pulling turnovers, to a game-saving graze of the final shot, this was a Saturday afternoon that had just about everything.
“Great atmosphere,” said Alex Poythress, UK’s senior forward who got enough of Louisville guard Damion Lee’s attempted three-pointer on the game’s final possession to cause the potential game-winner to come up short of the rim. “Great game.”
The one thing it did not have was postgame comments from Pitino, who sent poor assistant coach Ralph Willard to take questions from the media while the head coach fumed inside the locker room. But then what did we expect. Pitino has always been a sore loser, one who preaches from the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do playbook when it comes to accountability.
But let’s not let Pitino’s petulance spoil our 40 minutes of fabulous. If the U of L coach didn’t show up after the game — therefore showing his true colors — all parties involved showed up during the game and then some.
Or all but one, anyway. The drama actually began about 30 minutes before tip-off when Isaiah Briscoe, UK’s starting freshman guard, stepped on someone’s foot during warm-ups and turned his left ankle. Not only could Briscoe not start, the New Jersey native couldn’t even play, leaving the Cats an important man down for their biggest rivalry game of the year.
When Calipari saw his stunned team in the locker room, “I just bust out laughing,” said the coach. “I said, ‘Stuff happens. Next man up. Who is it? Someone’s going to get an opportunity.’”
That someone would be Dominique Hawkins, the former Madison Central star who came off the bench to score very important 13 points. Hawkins’ heroics blended nicely with game MVP Tyler Ulis, the sophomore point guard who for whatever reason — perhaps the elbow he hyperextended last month? — had lost his shooting touch, only to rediscover it at just the right time and make four three-pointers and score a team-high 21 points, including 10 of his team’s first 15.
Not that Louisville went away, mind you. Down nine early, the Cardinals charged back to take a 34-30 lead with 2:52 left after Calipari got hit with technical foul a full 1:22 before Pitino did the same — “I didn’t deserve mine; he probably deserved his,” Calipari quipped — only to see the host Cats finish the first half on a 14-2 run for a 44-36 halftime lead.
Kentucky stretched the lead to 16 points at 52-36 when here came Louisville one more time. Led by Lee (game-high 27 points), the visitors pulled within 65-64 and then 70-68 when up out of nowhere rose Hawkins to drill the game’s biggest shot, a three-pointer from the right wing. It was his career-high third made three of the game.
“He makes those shots all the time in practice,” Poythress said. “I don’t know why you guys are surprised.”
Nor should we have been surprised it was Poythress who made the game’s most athletic play, picking up Lee just as the guard was attempting to break Kentucky’ heart and send Louisville home a winner. Poythress got just enough of the ball to send Rupp Arena into a New Year’s party.
None of us should be surprised if Saturday was the springboard to bigger and better things for both sides. Louisville is much better than expected and figures to get better. As happy as Calipari was to go 8-1 over Pitino in these Cats-Cards extravaganzas, the coach was probably happier his team found the grit Saturday it lacked in losses to UCLA and Ohio State.
The MVP Ulis summed it up: “It was a great team performance.”
And a fantastic finish to 2015.