The Kentucky Wildcats gave its fans an early Christmas present by soundly beating their arch-rivals, the formerly undefeated 4th ranked Louisville Cardinals, 73-61. Sophomore sensation Rajon Rondo led the Wildcats with 25 points. Power forward Shraye Thomas added 11 points, 6 rebounds and Lukasz Obrzut chipped in with 9 rebounds for the Cats, who improved their record to 7-3.
"We had good balance throughout our lineup," coach Tubby Smith said, "Rajon set the tone early on, scoring, finding the open man, moving without the ball. He really stepped up."
"We viewed this game as a 'must-win' for us," said Obrzut, "fans in Kentucky view this game as one fo the very biggest all year. Everyone in this state looks at this as THE game of the year. We really prepared for this game. We really went after each other in practice. We came in focused - we wanted to win this game."
"We emphasized attacking the rim, and Obrzut and Thomas really did the job," Smith Said, "David Padgett picked up two quick fouls. We wanted them to play quicker and the Cards chose to not double team our guys inside and that was part of our success. We after every loose ball and challenged every shot."
The Wildcats jumped on the Cards early, building a quick 9-point lead at 15-6 in route to a 39-24 halftime lead. The second half was more of the same as the Cats continued to build its lead to as many as 23-points, at 55-32 at the 10:38 mark. The Cards whittled the lead to 11 toward the end of the game behind the play of Juan Palacios and David Padgett, but the outcome was never in question.
"Our pressure on the ball was great today," Smith said, "we stayed out on the shooters well. We knew we had to step up and play better. And sure enough we did it."
The Cards shot just 35% from the field and were outrebounded badly. For the Cards, Juan Palacios was top scorer with 15 points, though most of those points came late in the second half with the game out of reach. Taquan Dean added 14 and center David Padgett chipped in with 12 points, with most of those coming late as well.
"The key to the game was for us to playing unders control," coach Tubby Smith said, "our kids are getting tougher. This front line of ours (Obrzut, Thomas and Crawford) did a better job today than our front line last year (Morris, Hayes and Azibuke). We were a lot more positive today and that is a big part of it."
After building a 39-24 halftime lead, the Cats came out to start the second half with a 10-2 run behind the play of Joe Crawford and Rondo, who combined for all 10 points in that run. In that run, Joe Crawford brought the crowd to its feet with a thunderous slam dunk to put the Cats up 43-27.
"Rupp Arena is the 6th man on the floor," Obrzut said, "When the crowd got going, we got going."
Kentucky got welcome production from their big men, Obrzut and Thomas, who combined for 15 points and 15 rebounds. But the player of the game was Rajon Rondo, who sliced through Cardinal defenses like a warm knife through butter for 25 points.
"We play a lot of big games, and every time an opponent see us, we are going to get their best shot, and that is why I respect our players," Smith said, "They really feel the pressure. We tried to lighten it up some this week and it paid off. We had a total team effort. This was the first time all year that we played 'Kentucky' basketball, especially 'Kentucky defensive' basketball."
It did not feel so light for the Cardinals. Rick Pitino, animated and frustrated through much of the game, received a technical foul at the 16:02 mark of the second half with the Wildcats up 47-27.
The Wildcats will be in action next in Rupp Arena in Lexington against Iona on Friday, Dec. 23.