ITV Audio: Whitehead, Dartez, and George"> ITV Audio: Whitehead, Dartez, and George">

Cards Overcome Cats Best Punch

<b>BATTLE OF THE BLUEGRASS</b> - Billy Reed examines the implications of Louisville's 65-56 victory over the top ranked Kentucky Wildcats.<p><B>EXTRA:</B><br><li><a href=""><b>ITV Audio: Whitehead, Dartez, and George</b></a>

LEXINGTON, Ky.-- Of the 23 basketball games that have been played between Louisville and Kentucky since 1983, only the first one, the one-and-only "Dream Game," was more psychologically devasting to the lunatic fringe of Wildcat fandom than what transpired yesterday in Rupp Arena.

The Cards won the "Dream Game," 80-68 in overtime, to win the NCAA Mideast Regional and finally force UK into grudgingly scheduling a regular-season series against U of L. In some remote outposts of the commonwealth, you would have thought the end of the world was nigh.

But as the years wore on, and the Cats forged a 13-7 edge in the the regular-season portion of the series (the Cats also beat the Cards in a 1984 NCAA tournament game in Rupp), the Big Blue diehards slowly regained their superiority complex thanks in no small measure to Rick Pitino, who reeled off six consecutive wins against U of L before leaving Lexington for the Boston Celtics in 1997.

Louisville Reins Supreme (AP)
Yesterday here was Pitino again, working the sidelines in Rupp, but this time he was coaching the team in red-and-black. And what he delivered was every UK's worst nightmare: a 65-56 win over a Wildcat team that was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation.

When Pitino resigned from the Celtics in 2001 and accepted U of L athletic director Tom Jurich's invitation to replace Denny Crum a few weeks later, the shout of "traitor" stupidly was heard from border to border (and still is, for that matter). Meant to be an insult, it really was a reflection of the respect that many UK fans had for Pitino's coaching ability.

At bottom, however, was the fear of what became real yesterday.

With UK holding most of the aces, but with Pitino superbly playing his Cards, U of L took UK's best punch early in the game -- the Cats led by 14 almost before Billy Packer could clear his throat -- but fought back to finally wear down the Cats in the game's final 10 minutes.

Not to join the fickle mob that will be roasting UK Coach Tubby Smith instead of chanting "Tub-BEE, Tub-BEE," but Smith apparently didn't learn anything about the importance of depth from last season's 18-point loss to the Cards in Freedom Hall.

Pitino-coached teams are relentless. They don't quit. And they always go at least 10 deep with players who are confident they can contribute because they've been allowed to do it in game situations.

If Pitino had Bernard Cote, Josh Carrier, Ravi Moss, Shagari Alleyne, and Bobby Perry on his bench, you can bet they all would have far more playing time. The miracle of yesterday's game was that sophomore Brandon Stockton played so well in relief of point guard Cliff Hawkins, considering that Stockton was only averaging 7.6 minutes per game.

Conversely, it was no surprise that reserves Otis George, Alhaji Mohammed, and Larry O'Bannon played so well for U of L. The Cards have 10 players who are averaging at least 12 minutes per game; UK has six.

Garcia hit key shot late (AP)
Each team's defense was easily the best the other has faced. But in the final minutes, the Cards seemed to have fresher legs, due to their depth, and more poise, which was amazing considering UK's decided advantage in experience.

Interestingly, the Cats and the crowd were a perfect reflection of each other. The pre-game warmups built up to the anticipated crescendo of boos for Pitino's appearance (can we all agree that when the Cats return to Rupp in 2005, we don't need any long columns speculating on how Pitino will be greeted?)

Early on, there was great anticipation on the floor and in the stands of another lop-sided UK win. But as the Cards crept back, confidence seemed to be replaced by uncertainly, then fear of the unthinkable. With 1:42 remaining and the outcome still in doubt, many UK fans began leaving.

So now that the game is history, it will be fun to see how long it takes (a) UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart to begin talking about ending the series because the Cats have nothing to gain from it, (b) the talk shows to begin buzzing with enlightened observations such as that UK never again will beat U of L as long as Smith is the Wildcats' coach, and (c) Bill Keightley and the Big Blue cheerleaders in the Lexington media to come out of shock.

But just as the Cats would be foolish to dwell too long on the loss -- you can bet they'll bounce back strong, as they did last season -- so would it be irresponsible for the Cards and their fans to get too cocky. The team undoubtedly will make a major move upward in the polls, but if we've learned one thing so far this season, it's that the polls are about as valid as a freshman's fake ID.

Still, U of L's win has to be viewed as a major milestone in the series. This time UK had absolutely no excuses. And now the world knows exactly why there's so much fear and loathing toward Pitino in the dark places of the commonwealth. 

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