Monday, January 5, 2015

Louisville 50 - 58 Kentucky (No. 2,153)

Greek mythology tells the story of Antaeus, who was the son of Gaia, the Goddess of the Earth.  Because of his relationship with the earth, Antaeus could not be beaten in a fight as long as he remained in contact with the ground.  Knocking him down or throwing him in the dirt simply made him stronger.  For years, Antaeus challenged all passers-by to wrestling matches, and he won them all.  But one day, Antaeus challenged Hercules, who soon realized that he could not beat Antaeus by throwing him to the ground.  So Hercules used his mighty strength to left Antaeus from the earth -- and crush him in a bear hug.

I thought about this story a lot during the annual grudge match between Louisville and Kentucky, which was played on the Ville's home ground.  The Greeks, among their many good qualities, were huge sports fans, and it occurred to me that in Antaeus, they had brilliantly captured the strengths and weaknesses of the Louisville basketball team.  I have never seen a team, in any sport, that plays harder than U of L does in basketball.  The Cardinals will hit you, they will slap at you, they will knock you down, they will battle for every loose ball and every rebound, and they will never, ever, ever give up.  When you think you have them in trouble, they will simply start playing harder.

Most teams, even good teams, just don't have the patience or tenacity to deal with Louisville.  Since November 24, 2013, the Cardinals have a record of 39-6.  Significantly, all six of their losses during that stretch have come in rivalry games:

12/28/13:  Kentucky 73 - 66 Louisville
01/09/14:  Louisville 67 - 73 Memphis
01/30/14:  Louisville 66 - 69 Cincinnati
03/01/14:  Memphis 72 - 66 Louisville
03/28/14:  Louisville 69 - 74 Kentucky (Indianapolis) (NCAA Tournament)
12/27/14:  Louisville 50 - 58 Kentucky

Rivalry games are particularly dangerous for the Cardinals, because they are the only games in which the other team comes close to matching their intensity.  And if you can do that -- and only if you can do that -- you have a chance against the Cardinals, because their talent is not as great as their record would indicate.  Just like Hercules defeated Antaeus by lifting him into the air, Kentucky ultimately beat the Cardinals by taking its game to a level that U of L simply could not match.

Of course, it took a long time for all of this to become clear.  I used to think that no fan base wanted to beat Kentucky as much as the Indiana fans did in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but not any more.  At its best, basketball in the Commonwealth reaches a frenzy of passion and intensity that is unmatched by almost anything else in the world of sports.  People just care so much.  The Louisville fans -- including 2013 Kentuckian of the Year Jennifer Lawrence -- had packed the Yum! Center to see off the Big, Bad Wildcats, and they were ready.  Not much can make up for how UK eliminated the Cards in the 2012 and 2014 tournaments -- but spoiling UK's chance for an undefeated season would have helped.  There were a fair number of UK fans here and there -- even in the lower bowl -- who had managed to get tickets for the Big Game.  But there was no question that UK's first true road game of the season would be played in a cauldron of hostility.

Almost from the beginning, it was obvious that Louisville had decided to take the sledgehammer approach to basketball that has so often given UK trouble.  It's pretty simple, really.  On defense, you need a bunch of strong guys who will prevent any easy baskets, and aggressive guards to stifle any fancy passing.  On offense, you control the tempo and hope to make enough jump shots, put-backs and free throws to win.

For all the talk of one-and-done super-teams, the real theme of college basketball over the last five years has been the rise of smash-mouth basketball.  West Virginia used it to beat UK and go to the Final Four in 2010.  UConn used it to beat UK and win national titles in 2011 and 2014.  Florida used it to beat UK three times last year and reach the Final Four.  And Louisville used it to win the National Title in 2013.  In the hands of the right team, it is a formidable strategy.

It caused particular trouble for the Harrison twins, who struggled throughout much of this game.  They combined to go 3-16 from the field, and point guard Andrew Harrison had six turnovers in 20 minutes.  Of course, this performance has set off rumor-mongering from UK haters in the press, who speculate that the Harrisons won't be happy to lose playing time to anyone else.  But these same critics gave up on the Harrisons last year -- and the Harrisons went all the way to the National Title game.  So I'm not going to worry about them for now.

But I was pretty worried against Louisville, because UK's offense was going nowhere for most of the first half.  With 15:12 left in the first half, UK led 10-6.  Over the next 9 minutes of game time, the Cats scored exactly 2 points.  That was U of L's chance to blow the game open, but the Cardinals were having offensive problems of their own.  UK's players, showing great mental strength, continued to play solid defense despite their poor offense.  And the Cardinals were missing lots of open shots.  (In the first half, U of L went 6-28 from the field, including 1-7 from three-point range.)  So the Cardinals led only 13-12 when Aaron Harrison hit a three-pointer to put UK on top with 5:23 left before halftime.  From there, the Cats managed to grind out a few more points, and they led 22-18 at the half.  For the half, in one of the most violent games I have ever seen, UK shot exactly zero free throws.  It was going to be that kind of day.

The first minute or so of the second half passed with little incident.  But then, with the score still 22-18, Willie Cauley-Stein tipped an in-bounds pass meant for U of L center Montrezl Harrell, and suddenly the two centers were chasing the ball toward the U of L basket.  Much had been made about the match-up between Harrell (who is, if anything, even more intense than the typical Cardinal) and WCS, and their race was freighted with emotion -- especially for the fans waiting to comment on the message boards.  In the end, WCS beat Harrell to the ball, Harrell threw himself to the ground hoping for a foul (that was not called), and WCS went in for an uncontested dunk!

At that point, I started to get more confident.

Of course, it wasn't over.  UK went up 26-20; U of L cut it to 26-24.  UK went up 35-28; U of L cut it to 37-32.  But with 8 and a half minutes to go, it felt like the Cats finally had the measure of the Cardinals.  Tyler Ulis, UK's 5' 9" freshman guard, has been playing well for some time -- but he was really on for this game.  He was the only UK player quick enough and talented enough to get the ball where he wanted it to go, and his outstanding passing and shooting skills brought a level of quality to the game that no one else matched.  With 8 minutes to go, and Ulis at the point, the Cats finally started to pull away:

8:03 left:  Trey Lyles grabs a rebound and throws a run-out to Devin Booker.  Dunk!  (UK leads 39-32)
7:41 left:  U of L hits two free throws (39-34)
7:24 left:  Aaron Harrison finds Ulis, who nails a three pointer from the corner (42-34)
7:05 left:  Aaron Harrison steals the ball, is fouled, and makes one free throw (43-34)
6:19 left:  Ulis goes deep into the shot clock, and hits a jumper from the key (45-34)

A few minutes later, Andrew Harrison -- who struggled but never gave up -- hit a huge three-pointer to put the Cats ahead 50-38, and the game should have been over.  But Louisville doesn't quit either, and by this point they were getting to the line over and over.  (They took 24 free throws to only 14 for the Cats, which was beyond ludicrous.)  With 1:32 left, the Cats led 50-42 and Cardinal Wayne Blackshear was going to the line to shoot three free throws.  Fortunately for UK fans, he made only one of them.

Now the Cats had the ball and a 50-43 lead with just over a minute to go.  Once more into the breach, dear friends.  The Cats wove through the U of L defense, looking for a shot.  Suddenly, Ulis zipped a pass to Aaron Harrison, who nailed one of his famous late-game three-pointers to put UK up 53-43 with only a minute left.  And finally, we could all breathe.

There is not room to list all of the great plays by Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, and Karl-Anthony Towns, who combined for 25 of UK's 58 points.  But the hero of the game was undoubtedly Ulis, who scored 14 points -- and had no turnovers -- in 26 minutes against the most diabolical defense Rick Pitino could dream up.

The Cats are now 13-0 and it would be unfair to the historical record to ignore the fact that commentators across the nation are now speculating whether the Cats will be the first major-conference team since Indiana in 1976 to make it through the season without losing a game.  By now, I have learned that all of Calipari's UK teams will be either painted as world-beaters or savaged as failures, and that all such speculation is meaningless once the NCAA Tournament starts.  For myself, I will say only that I am very proud of the hard work and determination that the Cats have shown so far.  Whatever happens the rest of the year, I will remember that UK beat Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, and Louisville, and that only one of those games took place in Rupp Arena.  Now we'll see how they do in the long, hard slog of conference play -- where it's always winter and never Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. Antaeus, Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis all in one game story ... this is turning into a heck of a season.