LEXINGTON, Ky. --- They came in droves --- homemade signs in tow, vocal chords flexed and some reportedly paying upwards of $1,500 for a ticket --- to make this game a nightmare for their former coach who bolted town and later signed on with the arch-rival.
As it unfolded, though, Saturday's Kentucky-Louisville showdown became less about alleged turncoat Rick Pitino and more about the heretofore underappreciated Tubby Smith.
"Tub-by! Tub-by! Tub-by!" was a familiar refrain as a crowd of 24,330, the fourth largest in Rupp Arena history, took delight in the Smith-led 82-62 drubbing of the hated Cardinals and former UK boss.
"I think coach Smith stepped out of coach Pitino's shadow today," said Kentucky's Keith Bogans, who combined with Tayshaun Prince for 35 points and 16 rebounds in the victory. "...He doesn't show much emotion, but I'm sure he enjoyed it."
"I felt good for him," Prince added. "I think he needs to be appreciated. He's done a lot here. I think the fact that everyone was focused on this game will make him more appreciated. That's how it needs to be all the time here."
The victory marked Smith's first in six meetings with Pitino, with whom he served as an assistant at UK from 1989-91. It was also Pitino's first loss to a former assistant.
"It was a great college atmosphere. We've got the best fans in the world," Smith said. "(The Tubby chant) certainly makes you feel good to be wanted. It's good to know that you're appreciated."
As for Pitino, who guided the Cats to three Final Fours and the 1996 national title during his eight years in Lexington, the fans' reaction did not come as a surprise. He was greeted with a chorus of boos upon making his first appearance on the court prior to the introduction of lineups, and was the subject of several signs in the crowd.
One listed famous "traitors" over the course of history: "Benedict Arnold. Judas Iscariot. Rick Pitino. John Walker Lindh. Another was seeking attention from the CBS national broadcast cameras and took a playful jab at the newfound success of the Boston Celtics, sans Pitino: "Celtics Better Since (you left)."
"I think that's the way you've got to take it all, as good-natured jests," he said. "Some of the comments tonight, some people may deem cruel and ridiculous, but we laughed. We thought they were funny and hysterical. That's what college basketball and entertainment are all about. You have to be able to laugh, you have to have some fun."
And what of the boos?
"Believe me I'll be cheered in Freedom Hall," Pitino said. "If I get booed in Freedom Hall then that's when I'll be in trouble. I'm the rival coach. They were good to me when I was here and that's all I can ask from them. They're not good to me now and they shouldn't be."
The actual game proved to be much less entertaining than the circus-like atmosphere surrounding Pitino's return.
Louisville took advantage of a cold start by Kentucky (1-for-9 from the field in the first 5:15) to lead 6-3. The Cats took an eight-point lead on Bogans' three-point play with 3:31 left, but the Cards closed the half on a modest 12-7 spurt to cut the deficit to 36-32 heading into the locker room.
Carlos Hurt's 3-pointer to open the second half made it a one-point game before the Cats responded with what proved to be the game's first key span. Prince scored eight points in the 16-2 run to help put UK ahead 54-39.
The Cards, who shot only 36 percent for the game, went 7:57 without a field goal as the margin swelled to 19 midway through the second half.
A 6-0 spurt helped get Louisville back within 13, but the Cards missed four free throws during that stretch that could have cut the deficit to single digits. They hit only eight of 15 on the day.
Kentucky put the final nails in the coffin with a 15-0 run down the stretch. Sophomore point guard Cliff Hawkins scored six of his eight points in the decisive outburst, including a jaw-dropping crossover move and layup against Louisville big man Joseph N'Sima.
"That was an unbelievable crossover," Smith said. "He lost me and just about everybody else with that one."
Hawkins added five rebounds and five assists to his final line. The Cats also got 10 points each from Gerald Fitch and Marquis Estill.
Kentucky (8-2) shot 44 percent from the field and held a 46-41 rebounding advantage, its ninth straight game beating the opponent on the boards. The Cats had only 14 turnovers on the day against Pitino's full-court pressure, leading to a modest 10 points for the Cards.
"We never allowed them to make a run, which was a big key," Smith said. "We always responded with a big block or a big shot."
Reece Gaines, Bryant Northern and Hurt each scored 10 points to lead Louisville (9-2). The Cards' 62 points and Gaines' 10 (4 of 10 shooting) were both season lows.
"Our kids showed a lot of toughness defensively in the second half," Smith said. "We picked up our defensive intensity, and we did a marvelous team defensive job on Reece Gaines. One man really couldn't shut him down."
Prior to the game, Kentucky honored Cawood Ledford, the former "Voice of the Wildcats" who lost his battle with cancer in September, by renaming the floor in his honor. A logo was revealed along the sideline at midcourt which features a mircophone and the words "Cawood's Court."