Mark Story

Mark Story: Dream games have become nightmares for the Cardinals, lately

Louisville's Wayne Blackshear walked off the court as Kentucky players celebrated their 74-69 win in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal on March 28 in  Indianapolis. The Cardinals dominated the game from the outset only to see Kentucky go on at 15-3 run in the closing minutes to win it.
Louisville's Wayne Blackshear walked off the court as Kentucky players celebrated their 74-69 win in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal on March 28 in Indianapolis. The Cardinals dominated the game from the outset only to see Kentucky go on at 15-3 run in the closing minutes to win it. Herald-Leader

The University of Louisville has just completed the greatest three-year stretch in its men's basketball history.

Louisville is the only school in the nation to win 30-plus games each of the past three seasons. The Cardinals have advanced to two Final Fours. In 2013, they claimed the NCAA championship.

Yet for many U of L backers, this period of unprecedented bounty is tinged with misery — because two of these three glorious Cardinals seasons have ended with NCAA Tournament defeats to Kentucky.

"I think it's crazy, but for a lot of U of L fans, those two losses (to UK) have almost ruined three great years," said Drew Deener, the former Lexington media personality who now hosts a morning radio sports talk show on Louisville's WHBE-680 AM. "It's silly if you think about it, but that's how strong the emotions are around this rivalry."

Says Steve Patterson, a Louisville fan who lives in Lexington, "I would trade every regular-season win Louisville has ever had against Kentucky for wins in the 2012 and 2014 NCAA tournaments."

Mark Blankenbaker, who runs the Cardinals-oriented website The Crunch Zone, said he tries not to over emphasize UK-U of L games.

"It doesn't matter who you lose to in the NCAA Tournament, it hurts, I mean it ends your season, and that always hurts," he said. "But, yeah, the fact that in two out of three years it was Kentucky that ended Louisville's season, even I have to say that hurts a little more."

Adding further torment to U of L souls, since John Calipari became UK coach before the 2009-10 season, the Wildcats and Cardinals have played seven times.

Kentucky has won six of those games.

So on Saturday, when the No. 1 Wildcats (12-0) travel across Interstate 64 to face No. 4 Louisville (11-0), the Cats will encounter a fan base desperate to see Rick Pitino's Cards put the 'L' back in 'Wildcats.'

In some ways, these past three years have represented the high point of the UK-U of L rivalry.

In 2012, Kentucky beat Louisville in the first-ever Final Four meeting between Cats and Cards en route to the NCAA championship. U of L claimed the national championship itself the following season. So when Wildcats and Cardinals met in the 2014 NCAA round of 16, it was as the two most recent national champions.

For Louisville backers, it's not even close which tourney loss to UK hurt worse.

The 2012 Final Four defeat came after U of L had made a surprise run as a No. 4 seed to the national semifinals. It was against a UK team that was a prohibitive favorite to win it all.

In 2014, Rick Pitino's Cardinals, even though they had lost to UK in Rupp Arena in the regular-season, seemed clearly the superior team by the end of the regular season.

"I thought Louisville had the team to win back-to-back championships, I really did," Blankenbaker said.

When the two rivals faced off in Indianapolis, Louisville controlled the game from the start. The Cards built a 13-point lead in the first half. Louisville still led by seven with just 4:33 left in the contest.

Then a U of L nightmare unfolded. Kentucky ended the game on a 15-3 run. The Wildcats took the lead for good on an Aaron Harrison three-pointer with 39 seconds left. A contest that the Cats led for a grand total of 65 seconds ended with UK on top, 74-69.

"That game last year was probably the most crushing defeat in the history of the school for me," said Patterson, whom listeners to Lexington sports talk radio know as "Lou," short for "Louisville." "I just thought we had the better team. Then the game, we had it the whole way until the end. It was a rough one."

Adding to the excruciating nature of the loss, beloved Louisville senior guard Russ Smith, an 80.4-percent foul shooter as a junior, went 4-of-10 on free throws. It was the first defeat for Pitino in a Round of 16 game after 11 straight wins.

And, it was to UK.

Again.

In that game's aftermath, Deener went to the U of L team hotel. What he saw, he figures, had to be similar to what things were like for Kentucky backers after Christian Laettner's famous buzzer beater against the Cats in the 1992 NCAA tourney.

"I've never seen a fan base more despondent over the outcome of a game," he said. "The (U of L) fans were just wiped out. There was nothing you could say to anybody to make them feel better."

For a Louisville fan base caught in a Dickensian quandary — it was the best of times, it was the worst of times — an upset win Saturday over No. 1 Kentucky would finally do that.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments