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By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
Step away from the ledge, Cat fans — it’s not the end of the world.
Pitino’s Cards defeated Calipari’s Cats for the first time ever, scoring an 80-77 decision Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.
Despite the loss, the Cats displayed enough improvement to earn the praise of both teams’ head coaches.
“It’s a tribute to a young team to come back,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “Two weeks ago, quite frankly, I didn’t think they were a very good basketball team.
“Now they’re a hell of a basketball team. So they have really in a two-week span really improved.”
Calipari, who has lamented his teams’ effort most of the season, was complimentary of the Cats’ tenacity and took personal responsibility for the loss.
“I told them this one is on me. Hopefully I will do a better job and win more games than I cause us to lose,” Calipari said. “They (UofL) deserved to win, but I didn’t give our guys the chance they deserved down the stretch.
The Cards are experienced, deep and talented — and they were playing on their home floor in front of a rabid, record crowd of 22,810 (Cards fans didn’t give up their tickets this year, there was very little blue in the building).
Louisville has one of the best teams in the country, and was poised to take the Cats to the woodshed early in the second half, building a 51-34 lead with 14:45 left in the game.
But the Cats responded. Kyle Wiltjer hit a couple of open threes, the Cats made some defensive stops and then Archie Goodwin became a whirling dervish, twisting his way through the Cards stingy perimeter defense to make plays at the basket.
The Cats were similarly down to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish precisely a month ago in South Bend, and they didn’t respond, dropping that contest 64-50.
“That was one of the bigger emphasis — are you going to carry it over to the game,” Cauley-Stein said. “Everybody thinks we did that. That’s a huge step for us.”
Four home cupcakes, a Ryan Harrow return and two weeks of “Camp Cal” later, the Cats battled to the end against the best team they will play the rest of the regular season.
“We just had a grit about us in the second half. We got ourselves back in the game,” Goodwin said. “We fought hard the whole game, and that is something coach has been preaching to us the last couple of weeks. We didn’t get the ultimate goal, but we still make some strides forward.”
The Cards relentless pressure forces its opponents to cough up the ball 21 times per game. They also have a +6.5 rebounding edge for the season. Those two statistics lead to the Cards having 11 more field goal attempts per game than their opponents. That is tough to overcome.
The Cats managed those numbers well, turning the ball over 15 times and actually winning the battle of the boards 39-36, leading to the Cards having only four more field goal attempts than the Cats.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow continued to take the reins of the team, playing in all but one minute of action. He scored 17 points, but more importantly never wilted under the constant UofL pressure, dishing three assists against zero turnovers.
“He did great,” Calipari said about Harrow. Calipari grabbed Harrow after the game and talked to him. “This is where I wanted you at the beginning of the year, now where do we go from here — how do we build on this?” Calipari asked Harrow.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin had an incredibly disjointed, sloppy and chaotic first half, but was more organized in his chaos in the second half, eventually leading the team with 22 points.
“I was playing off instinct,” Goodwin said. “Coach wants me to attack.”
There are still question marks. Graduate student Julius Mays contributed just three points and three rebounds while playing 35 minutes.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress came off the bench for the first time this season, and was still considered an enigma by Calipari, scoring seven points and grabbing five rebounds in limited action (15 minutes).
“We can’t get any production out of Julius and Alex, so we are essentially playing with five guys and Jarrod (Polson),” Calipari said. “We have to get Alex playing better. He’s going to have to earn minutes.”
Enigmas aside, the Cats are beginning to gel as a team. As Eastern Michigan rolls in to Rupp Arena Wednesday for the final non-conference game of the season, the Cats are finally finding their identity.
“It’s going to be like this every game. People are going to play us hard — this is going to be their Super Bowl,” Cauley-Stein said. “We just have to come out and compete like we did today.”
That identity may have been found a couple months later than Cat fans would have preferred, but it is still an identity that may have them dancing late into March.