Saturday, March 29, 2014

Louisville 69 - 74 Kentucky (NCAA Tournament) (Indianapolis, Ind.) (No. 2,138)

This game had the feeling of one of those "win or go home" grudge matches that they used to stage in pro wrestling.  In recent years, these two proud and ancient programs had been exchanging ever more powerful haymakers:

Late 1990's:  UK wins titles in 1996 and 1998, dominates the in-state rivalry with Louisville.  BOOM!
2001:  U of L hires UK legend Rick Pitino to be its coach.  POW!
2005:  U of L makes the Final Four for the first time since 1986, while UK loses to Michigan State in double overtime in the Elite Eight.  SMACK!
2007:  UK gives up on Tubby Smith; hires the coach who knocked Louisville out of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.  WHOOF!
2009:  UK loses to U of L for the second year in a row; misses the NCAA tournament altogether while the Cardinals roll to the Elite Eight.  POUND!
2009:  UK hires Pitino nemesis John Calipari.  WHAM!
2011:  UK goes to the Final Four while U of L is eliminated by Morehead State.  SMASH!

Over the years, as the tension has mounted, the stakes of the games seem to grow and grow.  Everyone seemed to take sides.  If you liked Louisville, you chortled at Pat Forde's attacks on Calipari.  UK fans responded by supporting Matt Jones and Kentucky Sports Radio.  U of L fans celebrated their team's work ethic and experience.  UK fans pointed to their players' talent and NBA success.  U of L fans said that Calipari's one-and-done model was ruining the game.  UK fans said the same about U of L's physical style of play.

With this background in mind, there was a sense that last night's game would mark a turning point one way or another.  If U of L's senior-led team could beat UK and get to the Final Four -- or perhaps even win a second title in a row -- that would be compelling evidence that Pitino had not only matched Calipari, but had put the Cardinals on top in the rivalry.  On the other hand, if UK could eliminate the Cardinals for the second time in three years, it would validate Calipari's model and show that even a U of L team with a national title on the shelf couldn't beat UK's one-and-dones.

With so much at stake, over 41,000 people -- most of them with some connection to the Beloved Commonwealth -- poured into Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for a game that everyone wanted to see.  On CBS, Charles Barkley insisted that Montrezl Harrell was the only Cardinal who could crack UK's starting lineup, while Clark Kellogg and Kenny Smith insisted that U of L's experience and tenacity would prevail.  Vegas had made Louisville a 4 1/2 point favorite, while Ken Pomeroy said the Cardinals would likely win by 73-68.  Like an old-fashioned heavyweight title bout, the game didn't start until just after 10 P.M. Eastern time, as the huge crowd waited to see what would happen next.

First Quarter:  Louisville 20, Kentucky 9

The game got off to a relatively quiet start, notable mostly for the fact that UK missed five three-pointers in the first four minutes.  U of L led 8-4 at the first media timeout.  But then the Cardinals jumped all over the Cats, using their speed to create turnovers and dunks in truly terrifying numbers.  Suddenly the score was 18-5 for Louisville and you remembered why Pitino had a record of 11-0 in Sweet 16 games.  Pitino is a genius at prepping for a single game, and the gap in time between the second round and the Sweet 16 has allowed him to create game plans that often lead to blowouts.

But that's not all.  With 13:05 left in the half, Willie Cauley-Stein left the floor with a serious ankle injury.  On paper, it seemed that the Cats could use their superior height to frustrate the smaller and quicker Cardinals -- but Cauley-Stein's absence greatly undermined that plan.

Faced with these difficulties, Calipari did everything he could to keep his team calm.  He called one timeout with 16:06 left in the first half, then he used the media timeout with 15:52 left, then he called another timeout with 12:27 remaining.  He said afterward that he expected the team to struggle at the beginning, because they simply would not be ready for the pressure and intensity U of L would bring.  From his perspective, UK's fusillade of jump shots at the beginning of the game was a sign of weakness -- an indication that the Cats were not willing to scrap with the Cardinals down low.

All year, however, the Cats have tended to adjust their play once they've learned some more about that night's opponent.  Now they ended U of L's run with a layup by Randle, but UK still trailed by 11 after 10 minutes of play.

Second Quarter:  Kentucky 22, Louisville 14 (U of L led 34-31 at the half)

Fortunately for UK, Luke Hancock was on the sidelines with two fouls and U of L was missing free throws.  (The Cardinals went 6-15 from the line in the first half, with Russ Smith going 4-10.)  Meanwhile, UK got its offense going.  The Cats stopped making so many turnovers and finally made a few three-point shots.  They also started being more aggressive on the inside, eventually drawing three first-half fouls on Harrell, U of L's best inside player.  By the halftime break, the Cats had survived the initial storm and were very much back in the game.

At halftime, Greg Gumbel reminded us that U of L had won 68 games in a row where it led at the half.  But Barkley spoke for many UK fans when he said that the Wildcats were now making the right adjustments against U of L's defense, and that their physicality would eventually win the day.  Clark Kellogg pointed out that Hancock had missed almost the entire first half (he picked up his second foul with 15:02 to go), and that Hancock would play a big role in the second half.  Barkley said that this game was too athletic for Hancock, and that he would likely get in more foul trouble once the action resumed.

Third Quarter:  Louisville 16, Kentucky 15 (U of L led 50-46 with 10 minutes to go)

Just as Sir Charles had predicted, UK continued to look like the better team at the beginning of the second half, and the Cats finally tied the game at 38 with 14:54 left.  U of L's big early lead was gone.  But the Cardinals immediately started to build a new one.  Pitino sprung a new tactic on the Cats, as U of L started looking scooting up the floor much more quickly, hoping to burn UK's sometime shaky transition defense.  This worked brilliantly, as the Cards scored 12 points in just over three minutes to take a 50-44 lead at the 11:25 mark.  A layup by Andrew Harrison cut U of L's lead to four, but the Cardinals were still in a very strong position with 10 minutes left.

Fourth Quarter:  Kentucky 28, Louisville 19 (UK wins 74-69)

With 7:23 left, the Cats still trailed by four, 56-52, and Calipari decided to take a chance by inserting James Young back into the game -- even though Young had four fouls.  Young was assigned to guard the 24-year-old Hancock, who proceeded to make Coach Cal and Charles Barkley look pretty bad.  If not for some superb play from Dakari Johnson, Hancock would have put this game away:

7:12 left:  Hancock makes 3-pointer (U of L leads 59-52)
6:35 left:  Dakari Johnson makes old-fashioned 3-point play (U of L leads 59-55)
6:11 left:  Hancock makes 3-pointer (U of L leads 62-55)
5:53 left:  Johnson makes a jumper (U of L leads 62-57)
5:32 left:  Hancock draws Young's fifth foul and makes both FT's (U of L leads 64-57)
4:45 left:  Aa. Harrison makes two FT's (U of L leads 64-59)
4:33 left:  Hancock draws another foul and makes both FT's (U of L leads 66-59)

(To his credit, Barkley apologized to Hancock after the game.)  Thanks to those 10 points from Hancock, the situation was as follows:

1.  UK trailed by seven points
2.  There were less than five minutes to go
3.  Ken Pomeroy's analysis gave the Cardinals a 95 percent chance of victory
4.  Willie Cauley-Stein (injury) and James Young (foul trouble) were gone for the rest of the game

Here are the six players UK used in the rest of the game:  Aaron Harrison (freshman), Andrew Harrison (freshman), Dakari Johnson (freshman), Julius Randle (freshman), Alex Poythress (sophomore), and Dominique Hawkins (freshman).  Note that three of these players had played limited roles for most of the year, that Poythress has been regarded as a major bust, and that Hawkins had barely played at all in recent weeks.

For Kentucky to advance, these six guys had to play an almost perfect game against a team that was 22-1 in post-season play over the last three years -- its only loss in that stretch coming to Kentucky's dominant 2012 national champions.

And that's exactly what they did.

Here's what happened:

1.  With 4:10 left, Andrew Harrison found Poythress unguarded under the basket.  He whipped a pass through the Louisville defense, and Poythress's dunk made the score 66-61.

2.  With 3:40 left, Russ Smith tried a layup, which was BLOCKED by Poythress.  UK ball.  There was a media timeout, and you could see Calipari running out with a huge smile to congratulate Poythress.

3.  With 3:15 left, Randle made a bank shot high up on the backboard to make the score 66-63, and now the Kentucky fans were starting to roar.

4.  U of L came back up the floor.  But the transition baskets and backdoor layups that had been so much a part of their offense were now blocked off by a suddenly stiff UK defense.  And when Hancock tried to drive on Poythress, Poythress stole the ball.  2:51 left.

5.  Managing the ball very carefully against U of L's pressing defense, the Cats probed for an open shot.  As soon as the ball went to Hawkins, Hancock pounced, seeking to create a turnover.  Hawkins, who had not been involved in such a critical play since he took Madison Central to the state title last year, saw the ball slipping away -- and had the presence of mind to fall on it, creating a jump ball that gave possession back to UK.  This was a huge play.

6.  With 2:17 left, and the shot clock running out, Randle tried a jump shot over a gaggle of Cardinals in the lane.  It missed, but now Randle and Poythress were battling for the ball with everything they had (you have to get those 50-50 balls).  For two years, the Cardinals had dominated college basketball, in large part because most teams were not willing to deal with the inevitable pain that results from constantly banging with U of L.  At the beginning of the game, the Cats had sought to shoot over U of L.  But as Calipari and Pitino both recognized, the only way to beat the Cardinals was to beat them at their game -- to punish them down low.  Now Randle and Poythress went to war.  Randle got the ball in traffic, shot, missed, and now Poythress had the ball, he was fouled, he shot, and the BALL WENT IN.  Four fouls on Herrell, the Cardinals' strongest presence down low.   Poythress completed the old-fashioned three-point play, and THE GAME WAS TIED AT 66.

7.  With the huge crowd now roaring at unprecedented levels, U of L came up court again.  Russ Smith, who always seems to live in his own world, fired a three-pointer that missed -- and suddenly Andrew Harrison had the ball and had whipped it to his brother, who appeared to be going in for an easy basket -- but then Hancock interfered with his shot (I thought he fouled him) and Aaron Harrison missed the layup.  Harrell scooped up the rebound.  U of L ball with 1:55 remaining.

8.  Russ Smith again took on the UK defense -- but the Cats were no longer falling for his tricks, no longer getting close enough for him to draw a foul -- and Smith made a huge mistake, whipping a bad pass to Hancock that skittered out of bounds.  UK ball with 1:47 left.

9.  With 1:26 left, UK went back to Poythress, and he drew a FIFTH foul on Harrell, thus eliminating one of U of L's biggest offensive threats.  (Harrell had 15 points on 7 of 9 shots, and he appeared to be both devastated and enraged as he went to the sidelines.)  Poythress missed the first free throw, and made the second, and UK led 67-66.  It was UK's first lead since the score was 2-0.

10.  UK's lead didn't last long.  With 1:10 left, Russ Smith made a jumper in the lane to put U of L up 68-67.

11.  Once again, UK beat the U of L press.  (One of the most important factors in this game was that down the stretch, UK didn't turn the ball over, thus creating a half-court game where the Cats' superior size and skill could make a difference.  Andrew Harrison was magnificent in this regard.)  Once again, it seemed clear that the Cats were going to run their offense through Randle, who had the ball in the lane.  He had been magnificent down the stretch, and it seemed logical that the Cats were going to live or die with their big gun.  Russ Smith thought so, and he cheated over into the lane, preparing to reach in for the steal as soon as Randle spun in his direction.  But Randle whipped a pass out to Aaron Harrison, standing alone in the corner where Smith had left him.  As soon as the pass left Randle's hands, Smith dashed toward the corner, leaping toward Harrison.  But the Kentucky shooting guard, who was only 2-12 from the field, never hesitated.  As soon as he caught the ball, he shot it, and even on TV you could see it was going to be good all the way -- and that three-pointer gave UK A 70-68 LEAD.  31 seconds left.  Timeout Louisville.

12.  With 18 seconds left, Hancock missed a jump shot, and the ball was pretty clearly out on Louisville's Stephen Van Treese.  But the officials saw it otherwise, even after a long instant replay review.  So U of L got another chance.  This time, the Cardinals went to Wayne Blackshear, who drove down the lane, diving into Randle in an effort to draw a foul.  I thought Randle blocked his shot cleanly, but the officials called a foul, and Blackshear went to the line with the chance to tie the game.  However, he missed his first free throw.  And even after he made the second one, UK led 70-69.  Now it was down to free throws.

13.  The Cats inbounded the ball to Randle who was quickly fouled.  All year, UK fans -- including me -- have wrung their hands over UK's free throw shooting.  But for some reason, I was confident Randle would make his free throws -- and he did.  (Free throw shooting was a major difference in this game.  UK went 22-27 from the line (81.5 percent), while the Cards went 13-23 (56.5 percent)).  UK led 72-69 with 13 seconds to go.

14.  So it all came down to the last shot, and everyone knew that if Russ Smith could take that shot, he would do so.  Kentucky had Poythress guarding Hancock, and when Smith dribbled away from Aaron Harrison, Randle was there waiting for him.  Smith shot his usual step-back three-pointer over Randle's outreached arm, and for a split second I assumed we were heading to overtime.  But then I could see that the ball was falling, falling, and then it banged off the front rim, and Aaron Harrison had the ball, and there were only 2 seconds left, and we were going to the Elite Eight.  Aaron Harrison made two more free throws, and that Cats had a five-point win.

I went through this sequence in some detail because I really believe this is one of the most important games UK has ever won.  From 2011 to 2014, the Cats played Russ Smith and the Cardinals six times -- twice in the NCAA tournament.  This was a great, great Louisville team -- a team with a hall-of-fame coach, two final four appearances, and a national championship.  They were like the old-school Detroit Pistons -- a tough, smart, bruising team that could only be beaten by a team capable of withstanding their endless array of bumps, slaps, and bruises.  They never lost an NCAA Tournament game to a team outside of Kentucky.  And they went 1-5 against the Big Blue.

Last night the Cardinals were favored by 4 1/2 points, they had a 13-point lead at halftime, and they had a seven-point lead with less than five minutes to go.  If there was ever a time for the Cardinals to shut up the UK fans, and prove that their system is better than ours, that was their chance.  But they couldn't get it done, and their fans will have to live with that fact for a long, long time.

We fans talk and talk and talk about these games, but we're not the ones who have to get hit in the head, or twist an ankle, or get stepped on in the lane.  We give the players our loyalty and cheers -- we give them fame and glory -- and they are supposed to make us feel good.  Last night, the UK fan base experienced a surge of joy for the ages -- our players came through for us in an extraordinary way.  And now, almost no matter what happens, this will be remembered as a fun, fun season.

But it's not yet banner-worthy.  To get a banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena, the Cats need to win at least one more game.  I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow, because I cannot remember another time when UK fans were so happy just to make the Elite Eight.  Normally we are all tense and anxious at this point, feeling that a loss in the Elite Eight will overshadow our accomplishments for the rest of the year.  However, UK's amazing wins over Wichita State and Louisville have left a glow over the program that almost nothing can dispel.

I have long thought that it's dangerous for a team to be content with its performance -- that in a single-elimination tournament, the more desperate team will usually prevail.  If the Cats are just happy to have made the Elite Eight -- like so many of their fans -- they will be in big trouble against a Michigan team eager to claim the national title it almost won last year.  I have no idea what's going on inside the UK locker room.  But I'm starting to think that these young Cats are much more ambitious than we have given them credit for.  Middle-aged guys like me think of them as youngsters trying to prove themselves on the Big Stage.  But when I watch them play, I get the impression that they think they might be the best team in the country, and that they are hungry for even more fame than they already have.  And if that's the case, their game tomorrow with Michigan could be yet another classic.


  1. Well, this was just great as always. The comparison to the heavyweight-title bout is apt. Right after the game, the managing editor of the Bowling Green newspaper Tweeted out, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" That great thing gets too quickly recalled for moments in sports that don't nearly warrant its weight, but this game--for Kentuckians, at least--totally merited its application.

    (My favorite thing about "Down goes Frazier!" is that the subject actually tumbles down all the way to the end of the sentence. I don't know if Howard Cosell had imagined the line before that fight started and was simply ready to pull it out in the correct scenario or if it was just a spontaneous spurge of genius, but I don't care--"Down goes Frazier!" is great.)

    I'm so glad you gave some love to Dominique Hawkins here. It's underrated just how much skill and composure it takes to keep a mistake from cascading into a disaster at a moment when everyone's eyes are on you. I was so impressed that, once he was overwhelmed by Luke Hancock, Hawkins didn't try to save face and instead simply fell on the ball like every retired quarterback commenting on an NFL game tells us a clumsy offensive lineman should do when suddenly confronted with a bouncing, discarded football. "Just don't get any big ideas, you big oaf," they seem to say. "Just do what you're taught to do and save the highlights for us glory boys." Well, Dominique Hawkins is a 19-year-old kid who probably, for most of 18 years around Madison County, was trained to be a glory boy, so he had to actually sublimate his urges and, in the heat of a very public moment of humiliation and attack, embrace the grunt role he has on his new team. He did fine. Hawkins is a keeper.

    Another thing ... like Coach Cal and Sir Charles, I also underestimated Luke Hancock. That guy was fantastic.

    Finally: Go, UK!

  2. A caller to Kentucky Sports Radio, "Chester," just suggested that the big change with this team has been the Harrison dad's attendance at the last several games. And now they're playing some George Strait song about a father's love as the commercial bumper.