Entering the fray that is Feathers vs. Fur in the Bluegrass with re-calibrated long range bombsights, and overcoming a significant pregame injury to a starter, Kentucky handed U of L a disappointing coulda woulda shoulda loss yesterday, 75-73.
The Cardinals, intimidated by the Rupp Arena environment, played tight early, disappeared entirely right before and right after halftime, then rallied with panache, but, failing to score on two consecutive possessions at the end, failed to close the deal.
As disappointing as the loss is how the U of L players (and fan base) were Rickrolled by their coach, not once, twice but three times.
First, an alleged engenderer of confidence notwithstanding, the powder puff early season schedule set up by Pitino did not serve the Cardinals well. When UK’s D took U of L out of its offensive sets early, in front of a loud, rabid BBN throng, Louisville, not having experienced anything close previously, even in East Lansing, melted down. Pitino provided no immediate adjustments.
Heartier opposition in hostile environments would have better prepared Louisville for Rupp, as well as the intense ACC venues just over the horizon.
Second, Pitino ever known as a great preparation coach, but not the savviest adapter when it comes to in game adjustments, had nothing workable to provide his team, who had the ball with plenty of time to run a set for the win on the final play. Instead, Damion Lee badly misfired on a falling away and to the side stepback three. On the previous possession, exposing his mid-major characteristics, Trey Lewis dribble, dribble, dribbled too much, and eventually turned the ball over. Apparently, Pitino didn’t call out a set there either.
Third, and most disheartening, Pitino, petulant as ever, responded like a fourth grader after the loss. He either did or did not give the finger to a UK fan(s), a gesture so inappropriate we shouldn’t even be discussing the possibility. He was yet again unwilling to take the loss like a man, teach his players graciousness in defeat. Other than his radio obligation, Pitino didn’t take questions from the media.
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Playing nervously, U of L quickly fell behind by 9. Then fought its way back to take a small lead, but couldn’t get distance.
With 2:52 left before intermission, Jamal Murray was whistled for a foul. John Calipari was whistled for a T. Damion Lee hit all four FTs, and the Cards led 34-30.
From then until the break, UK surrounded a Lee deuce with 14 points for a 44-36 lead, starting with an unimpeded Dominique Hawkins trey just thirteen seconds after that four point Cardinal advantage.
Then the Cats tallied the first eight points of the second half for a sixteen point lead, 52-36, with 17:54 to play.
After which moment, Louisville proved it had heart. While Kentucky proved it could pass muster to hold on for the W.
Louisville cut the lead to a digit, 65-64 at 5:34. Ulis canned a three :15 later.
The Cards pulled within a deuce at 68-66, then gave up a Marcus Lee slam on the ensuing UK possession.
U of L continued to pursue, again chopping the deficit to a deuce at 70-68. Again Kentucky remained resolute with another Hawkins trey for a five point margin.
Every time the Cardinals came close, the Wildcats shut the door.
A missed Jamal Murray trey, and a forced shot clock violation gave U of L, down 2, a couple opportunities at the end. They couldn’t overcome.
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Louisville’s chances to prevail were sabotaged by the same issues that have been nagging them the whole season.
Chinanu Onuaku picked up two stupid fouls early on illegal picks, and sat the final 14:24 of the opening half.
Louisville was only 15/22 at the line. And gave up a bonus point at the charity stripe, after a lane violation.
The killer was U of L’s often phantom three point defense. Yes, Ulis, Hawkins and Murray drained a number of howdtheymakethat long balls, launched from the stoop of Joe Bologna’s. Buuuuut, on a number of the eleven successful Wildcat threes, they were wide open on the wing. Such defensive lapses have been a Cardinal issue for weeks. Obviously, it remains unresolved.
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Louisville, though spooked at the start, did settle in, playing with extreme passion, if not precision, the rest of the way.
On a possession almost midway through the first half. Anas Mahmoud made a savvy aggressive save on a ball going out of bounds. Donovan Mitchell leaped high in the circle, to secure AM’s swat. The possession ended with a Lee three to knot the game at 17.
But there were also too many not so sensational sections of the game, like the interlude when Alex Poythress had his way in the paint, seemingly without opposition.
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The game wasn’t artful.
But was hard fought, and statistically as close as the final score. (Except for UK’s 11/23 shooting behind the line.)
The Cards charged. They managed to come close, even though they were rarely able to run their sets on offense. The Cats held on. They answered every one of Louisville’s blows with a counterpunch.
John Calipari was gracious in victory. Rick Pitino was a putz in defeat.
— Seedy K