UK spoils Yum! Center’s debut as setting of the Battle of the Bluegrass

LOUISVILLE — More “S-o G-double o-d Good” for UK than Josh Harrellson’s career night or DeAndre Liggins’ smothering defense was the simple fact that Louisville’s new basketball shrine, the KFC Yum! Center, was tarnished by the Cardinals’ most-hated rival in the form of a 78-63 win, their last memory of 2010.

For the members of Big Blue Nation, the win on New Year’s Eve 2010 will likely be imprinted in their memories for eternity as they will forever have bragging rights on their neighbors located 90 miles west and effectively spoiled the christening of the Yum! Center in the Battle of the Bluegrass.

Despite UK head coach John Calipari’s best efforts to downplay the rivalry game as the “next game” this week and trying to not make the game “bigger than what it is,” the Cats, including the out-of-state freshmen, seemed to have a fairly good idea of what to expect.

“We knew what (the environment) was going to be like already, and it was probably worse,” UK freshman guard and Florida native Brandon Knight said. “(But) no matter where the game was at, our goal was to win.”

Goal achieved.

If the humongous replica KFC bucket in the Yum! Center wasn’t enough of an initial attention grabber for the Cats, consider that they were surrounded by a sea of fans dressed in red, who were waving towels with neon red lights during player introductions, a giant inflatable Dean’s Milk bottle circling over the crowd and other Louisville fans sporting shirts that featured self-explanatory slogans, such as “I hate Kentucky” or “UK2Gay.”

“The crowd really showed us how much they don’t like us,” freshman forward and Oregon native Terrence Jones said. “Going out and playing was a lot of fun; silencing a crowd with a bucket is a lot of fun.”

For the most part, U of L fans didn’t have much of a chance to break their silence.

With the Cardinals trailing 52-37 with a shade under 12 minutes to play, former Louisville basketball great, Scooter McCray, appeared on the big screen and roused fans to “stand on their feet” in the new “palace” of basketball and will their team to victory.

The pep talk’s effectiveness was short-lived; Cardinals’ senior guard Preston Knowles helped crank up the sound in the Yum! Center by scoring 10 points in roughly three minutes, but the Cardinals couldn’t get a defensive stop.

During postgame interviews, Calipari was asked what he thought of his team’s ability to brace the Knowles’ run after McCray’s speech.

Calipari said he didn’t even know McCray had addressed the crowd, insistent that his team’s focus was confined to the four corners of the hardwood..

After all, the Cats did get practice on the road against an elite team when they fell to the North Carolina Tar Heels on Dec. 4 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

According to the game’s most unlikely star, Harrellson, the loss to the Heels served him and his teammates well heading into this game.

“We came out real flat in that game,” Harrellson said. “We definitely learned a lesson from that game to this game; we (came out) just a lot more stronger, a lot more physical and had a lot more energy.”

A win in the Yum! Center born from strength, physicality and energy will always be memorable for the UK fans, more so than the specifics of the game, like each of Harrellson’s 23 point and 14 rebounds.

For now, the U of L history books will show that the Cardinals are winless on their home floor against the Cats.

But for Calipari and his team at the present, the win is just more practice for the hostile road venues ahead.

“Everywhere we go, it’s someone’s Super Bowl,” Calipari said.