The game lived up to the hype, even if the execution down the stretch did not.
Damion Lee finished with 27 points for No. 16 Louisville, but his step-back jumper in the final seconds hit nothing but air as the Cardinals fell to No. 12 Kentucky in Rupp Arena, 75-73. On the previous possession, Kentucky passed up on a pair of open looks, committing a shot-clock violation that opened the door for the Cardinals to try and win the game on the final possession. That came after Louisville’s Trey Lewis traveled with 43 seconds left and a chance to tie the game.
The good news for Kentucky?
Box scores don’t include style points.
Tyler Ulis led the way for the Wildcats with 21 points and eight assists, turning the ball over just once completely taking control of Kentucky’s offensive attack on a day where Jamal Murray was a trainwreck and Isaiah Briscoe rolled his ankle during warm-ups. Ulis was on fire early, hit a pair of massive threes in the second half and assisted on three more down the stretch as the Wildcats survived a furious rally from Louisville. (More on that in a second.)
Kentucky also didn’t get anything from Skal Labissiere on Saturday, amazingly enough. The heroes for the Wildcats were Alex Poythress, who played his best game of the season and arguably his most important in a Kentucky uniform, and Dominique Hawkins, who played the best game of his career. Poythress finished with 14 points, six boards and three blocks, scoring on three straight possessions near the end of the first half to bust Kentucky out of a slump offensively and to help them break down the Louisville zone. Those three buckets drew the attention of Louisville’s defense, which in turn created open looks from three for Derek Willis and Hawkins late in the half. Hawkins had a career-high 13 points, hitting 3-for-4 from beyond the arc.
Kentucky, at one point early in the first half, opened up a 52-36 lead on the Cards, the end result of a 22-2 run that spanned both halves. Part of the issue for the Cardinals late in the first half is that all of their big men had two fouls. In the second half, when Chinanu Onuaku returned to the floor, the game changed. Kentucky was unable to handle Onuaku’s presence on the offensive glass, as he finished with six of Louisville’s 21 offensive rebounds. Kentucky, on the afternoon, had just 19 defensive boards.
The real difference-maker in the second half was Donovan Mitchell. He finished with just eight points, five boards and three assists, but his energy at the top of Louisville’s press changed the flow of the game. He didn’t get credited with any steals, but he did help to create a handful of turnovers and kept offensive rebounds alive on a number of possessions. He’s still not much more than an athlete at this point in his development, but his energy will be a nice boost for this team off of their bench.
For Kentucky, this win is a shot in the arm for a team that has been lacking for confidence at times this season. They’ve struggled against a handful of teams they probably shouldn’t be struggling against, but on Saturday, they knocked off their arch rival — a top 20 team — on a day where their two most-hyped freshmen did more for Louisville than they did for Kentucky.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, are now guaranteed to begin ACC play without having accomplished anything of note during the non-conference portion of their schedule. They certainly pass the eye test as far as being a tournament-caliber, top 25 basketball team, but that only matter so much for the NCAA tournament selection committee. I can’t envision a scenario where this team doesn’t do enough in ACC play to garner an at-large bid, but it is going to be interesting to see what happens with their seeding as a result.