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By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
For the first time since John Calipari’s second season in Lexington, the UK men’s basketball team entered a game as the clear-cut, majority underdog. As nearly a 10-point dark horse, the Cats took the court at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville Saturday with their sights set on proving they are on par with their bitter in-state rival.
And after the 40 minutes had gone by, the No. 4 Cardinals showed just why they have been there the entire season.
Louisville beat UK 80-77 on Saturday — Calipari’s first loss to Rick Pitino since he took over at UK.
While the final score shows a relatively a close game, it took the Cats’ best effort to fight back into it.
After taking an eight point lead into halftime, the Cardinals revved up the defensive pressure. UK had four turnovers in the first five minutes of the second half, all of which led to easy transition baskets. Just five minutes into the half, the lead had swelled to 17.
From there, UK began hitting shots and getting stops, and slowly chipped away at the lead. With 5:32 left in the game, it was just a two-point game at 63-61.
However, as veteran teams do, Louisville made the plays they had to make to win the game.
“When you have guard play that they have, and you’ve got some size and toughness … this is an outstanding team,” Calipari said.
Down four with the ball in the waning seconds, freshman Archie Goodwin turned the ball over out of a trap, leading to a breakaway dunk that all but sealed the game.
While Goodwin said he was hesitant to call timeout for fear the Cats had none left, Calipari was the one taking blame for the play after the game for not taking the timeout himself.
“That effectively ended the game,” Calipari said. “I told them this one was on me. That play is a coach’s play. Stuff like that happens, and I’ll take responsibility.”
Without sophomore guard Ryan Harrow, Calipari wouldn’t have been in position to take that timeout. Harrow finished the game with 17 point, five rebounds, four assists and zero of UK’s 15 turnovers. Against Louisville’s relentless on-ball defensive pressure, the point guard handled the offense just like Calipari hoped he could.
“I grabbed him after and said this is where I wanted you at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Now where do we go from here?”
For the first time this season, free throw shooting played a key, and ultimately lethal, role in the outcome. The Cats finished 11-23 from the line, a stat that was hard to ignore as the score became closer.
Louisville was led by three players, sophomore Chane Behanan, junior Russ Smith and senior Peyton Siva who all tallied at least 19 points. Pitino relied on his experienced guys late, and they made the difference in the closing minutes.
“This is the first year that we had as much talent as (UK),” Pitino said. “And, quite frankly, I think we’re more talented than them because we have experience.”
It may have been the best game the Cata have played this season, but don’t tell that to the players, who treated it as just another deflating notch in the loss column.
“I hate losing,” Goodwin said. “Any loss, no matter who it’s against, is going to affect me. We could have won it, and that makes it even worse.”
After a few weeks of “Camp Cal”, the general consensus from both sides was that this was a very improved UK team. Going forward, the Cats will have to continue that progression to be able to win this type of game in March.
“Two weeks ago, quite frankly, I didn’t think they were a very good basketball team,” Pitino said. “Now, they’re a hell of a basketball team.”