Kentucky topples Louisville
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Rick Pitino kept waiting for John Wall to lose his cool.
Moments after Louisville quieted a record Rupp Arena crowd by taking a one-point lead over No. 3 Kentucky midway through the second half on Saturday, Pitino thought for a second maybe — just maybe — the freshman superstar would finally blink.
Instead, Wall responded with six straight points to spark Kentucky’s gritty 71-62 win over its archrival — and win Pitino’s admiration in the process.
“When a game gets a little tight like that, with the game on the line, it just shows you how great Wall is because it didn’t faze him,” Pitino said.
Not much does.
Not the constant jawing with Louisville players. Not the countless bumps, nudges and hits he took while trying to get down the court. Not the pressure of playing in the spotlight while trying to return the Wildcats to national prominence.
“He decided to take the game over,” Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson said. “John got the ball and pushed it, blew by defenders and made several big shots.”
Wall scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half as the Wildcats (15-0) matched their best start in 40 years by breaking a two-game losing streak to the Cardinals (10-4).
“I’m playing at another level I never thought I could play at,” Wall said. “I always played good when I was in high school but playing for (Kentucky coach John) Calipari, he’s going to take you to another level and get you better. I thought I was at the top of my potential when I was in high school. I’m nowhere near it.”
It’s a scary proposition for opponents, particularly after the Cardinals did their best to frustrate Wall in one of the most contentious meetings in the series’ long history.
The jawing started in the tunnel well before tipoff, continued through warm-ups then really got going once the ball was in the air.
The teams combined for 51 fouls — including five technicals — and had to be separated on several occasions.
Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson added 17 points and teammate DeMarcus Cousins posted his fourth straight double-double with 18 points and 18 rebounds, though he narrowly missed being ejected 45 seconds into the game after getting tangled up with Louisville’s Jared Swopshire.
The two were battling for a loose ball when Louisville’s Reginald Delk pushed Cousins from behind. Cousins appeared to swing his right forearm at Swopshire’s head as he tried to get up. All three players received technical fouls but none was ejected.
Cousins said it was simply the cost of doing business.
“It was intense,” Cousins said. “I was just going for the ball. They tried to get physical and we got physical with them. They tried to rough us up.”
The Wildcats pushed back and dominated at times. Louisville missed 18 of its first 19 shots and Kentucky built an 18-5 lead.
Yet Louisville hung tough behind the play of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith. The senior guards finished with 11 points each and helped the Cardinals rally to take a 42-41 lead on a free throw by Terrence Jennings with 9:51 to go.
“I guess they tried to intimidate us from the beginning, but it didn’t happen,” Sosa said. “We wanted this game bad. They were doing a lot but we didn’t want to play dirty.”
Still, the Cardinals couldn’t contain Wall when it mattered. He started the game-turning 14-3 run with a tough leaner along the baseline then added a pull-up jumper to extend the lead to three. He stripped the ball from Louisville’s Peyton Siva and knocked down a pair of free throws after being fouled trying to finish on the break.
In the midst of his run he even managed to get the first technical foul of his college career after exchanging words with Smith. Though Wall admits he came “close” to losing his temper, he simply used his anger to fuel the Wildcats.
“We were saying everything,” Wall said with laugh.
Perry Stevenson added a reverse layup, Ramon Harris drilled a 3-pointer and Patrick Patterson converted a three-point play to give Kentucky a 55-45 lead with 5:35 to go.
Louisville kept scrapping but got no closer than seven the rest of the way.
Pitino and Calipari shook hands briefly as the horn sounded, both coaches only too happy to put one of the most anticipated meetings in the series’ long history behind them.
“This game was physical but neither team was going to give an inch,” Calipari said. “You could come out and do that bravado. It wasn’t working in this game.”
Neither was much else in 40 heated minutes that made up for in passion what it lacked in precise play.
The game was billed as the renewal of the simmering rivalry between Pitino and Calipari, one filled with plenty of subplots.
Calipari was wary of how the crowd would behave toward Pitino, who led the Wildcats to three Final Fours and a national championship in the 1990s but has become Public Enemy No. 1 while coaching the hated Cardinals.
Calipari urged fans to behave themselves, a veiled reference to Pitino’s troubled summer in which he acknowledged to having an affair six years ago with a woman later charged with trying to extort him for millions.
Security officials confiscated any signs they deemed inappropriate, though during one timeout in the first half a group in the upper deck chanted the woman’s name.
Pitino was too busy yelling at Sosa to notice and afterward laughed off the chanting as a distraction.
“I think two or three people missed me,” he said sarcastically.
Pitino didn’t miss Cousins, who dominated his matchup with Louisville center Samardo Samuels. Samuels finished with nine points and nine rebounds, turned it over three times and was muscled out of the way by Cousins.
After his early scrap, Cousins kept his emotions in check and capped the victory with a thunderous dunk with 37.2 seconds left that put the Wildcats up 68-57 as the crowd erupted.
The win matched Kentucky’s best start since 1969-70. It also kept hopes of a perfect season alive.
“It’s going to be pretty tough but I think we’ve got a chance,” Wall said.