LEXINGTON – Both the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals should benefit from a battle at Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon that was without question the ugliest contest – both literally and figuratively – in the history of the storied rivalry between the two schools.
The two teams were mouthing and pushing each other even before the opening tip. Louisville players declined to shake hands with the Wildcats as both teams came to the center circle for the opening tip, and then some eight fouls were called in the first 45 seconds of the game, including three technicals – to Jared Swopshire and Reginald Delk of Louisville and DeMarcus Cousins of UK.
The game was a relative love affair after that, though tensions were on high alert throughout.
“It was heated,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said with a shrug after his Wildcats escaped with a 71-62 victory. “Look, UMass and Temple had metal detectors when we went in the building. Memphis-Louisville, Memphis-Tennessee ... they are heated, too. The start today was physical, but neither team was going to give an inch. You could come out and do the bravado, but that wasn’t working in this game. There was too much talent on both sides, and too much pride on both sides.”
“This is what rivalry games are about,” added Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “Louisville-Kentucky, Xavier-Cincinnati, Memphis-Tennessee...you’re always going to see it. But we’ve got great respect for them.”
Kentucky won the game because it had John Wall and Louisville didn’t. It’s that simple. And this was far from Wall’s best game as a Wildcat.
Wall had just three points at intermission and finished with a relatively ho-hum 17 points, one rebound, four assists, five turnovers and two steals.
It’s also true that UK freshman center Cousins contributed mightily with 18 points and 18 rebounds, and junior forward Patrick Patterson had 17 points and four rebounds
But when the Cardinals rallied back from a horrendous start – U of L had just seven points with under six minutes to go in the first half to UK’s 18 and took their only lead of the game, 42-41, on a jumper by Terrence Jennings with 9:51 left in the game – it was Wall who bailed out the less-experienced Wildcats.
Wall scored the game’s next six points to put the Wildcats up for good, 47-42, with 8:08 left.
Louisville wasn’t out of it until the last minute or so, but Kentucky controlled the tempo and eventually the outcome after Wall’s surge.
“John and even Eric Bledsoe are not afraid to make plays and make free throws,” Calipari said of the closing minutes. “They have a will to win that is just hard to teach. You just have that competitiveness.”
Wall said Louisville’s zone defense allowed gaps in the second half that were not there in the first.
“They did a good job defending me,” Wall said of the Cardinals early on. “I was getting a little frustrated because I was not making the shots I normally do. They were not letting me through the gaps. In the second half I took my time and looked for my spot. In the first half they were closing in quickly on us, so we had to work harder.
“But we came back and got the win.”
Wall made a believer of Pitino, who likened Wall’s response at crunch time to the money time efforts of pros he has coached against like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
“The tide turned and we had momentum,” Pitino said of Saturday’s battle. “And John Wall made a mid-range jumper, and there was a foul on Preston (Knowles). He (Wall) wasn’t having a great night, and the great thing about that young man is it never bothered him. He never lost focus. He stayed with it, and he made two killer plays for them. That is the sign of a great one, and he certainly is.
“I love his attitude, and I love the way he plays.”
Wall’s second-half surge was the high point of the afternoon. The low point was the scrum under the Louisville basket some 45 seconds into the game when Cousins and Swopshire got tangled up on the floor and tussled.
It looked like a U of L player pushed Cousins at one point but video replays also showed Cousins threw a forearm at Swopshire while on the ground.
The CBS announcers, Clark Kellogg and Tim Brando, both said at differing points that Cousins should have been tossed out of the game for the incident, though the officials working the game didn’t even give Cousins a technical until they viewed the replay at courtside.
And you couldn’t blame Kentucky fans for believing that had this been Duke against North Carolina, CBS would have called the sequence good, scrappy action, reflective of a great rivalry.
The participants didn’t make a big deal out of it afterward. Both Calipari and Pitino said they did not have a clear view of the altercation.
“I didn’t see it, so I can’t get overly bent out of shape,” Pitino said. “If the refs got it wrong, I don’t know why ... they looked at it long enough.”
“We were just going for a loose ball, and it got physical,” Cousins said. “I don’t know anything about a forearm. I was just going for the ball.”
“That’s all a part of the game,” Swopshire said. “It happens like that sometimes.”
Calipari said he didn’t have a good view of it either, though the UK coach also said it was clear coming in that the Cardinals wanted to take the volatile Cousins out of the game, at least mentally.
“I think Louisville did everything they could to get his goat,” Calipari said. “We told him they were going to do that.”
“I wish they had thrown him out,” Pitino said of Cousins with a laugh. “We would have gained 18 rebounds.”
Kentucky improved to 15-0 heading into its Southeastern Conference opener Saturday at home against Georgia (4 p.m.), while Louisville falls to 10-4 and resumes Big East play Wednesday at Providence (7 p.m.). The Cards are 1-0 in their conference and will no doubt see more physical games like this one down the road.
“The biggest thing you walk away from is, when we’re in this kind of game, who can we play?” Calipari said of his side. “When it really gets physical and the game’s on the line, who can we play? The second part of it is we know when the other team makes a run and ties it up and gets up on us, we’re okay, we don’t panic. Those are the kind of lessons you want to learn in games like this, and I think it’s a good thing.”
But the Cardinals also showed something to Pitino, notably that they have the grit and toughness to be a factor in the Big East and beyond.
“I’m real proud of our guys and the way they fought,” said Pitino, whose team was led in scoring by senior forward Jerry Smith and senior guard Edgar Sosa with 11 points each and in rebounding by sophomore center Samardo Samuels with nine. “They played their hearts out.
“We’re going to get a lot better as the year goes on. This was a good experience for us to get this road game going into the Big East.”