By Nathan Gardner–
The lid may just come off of the state of Kentucky this week. With the Louisville Cardinals and Kentucky Wildcats set to meet in New Orleans on Saturday, Louisville will be buzzing for the next week.
After the Cards pulled off a heroic comeback Saturday to punch their ticket to the Final Four, a group of about 75 students and fans gathered at the airport Sunday afternoon to greet the Final Four-bound Louisville Cardinals men’s basketball team.
The Cardinals, who landed at the smaller charter airstrip on Standiford Avenue at the Louisville International Airport, stepped off the plane at 4:51 p.m. to a warm welcome. Senior communications major Randy Woodford received a text from guard Chris Smith informing him of the team’s arrival. Woodford instantly spread the word through social media and alerted Louisville fans of the low-key team arrival. Dozens of vehicles streamed down Standiford Avenue minutes before the Cards’ plane arrived, showing their school pride and spirit for a job well done.
Fans rattled the chain-linked fence separating them from the team as Chane Behanan stepped off the plane and hoisted the West Regional Championship trophy above his head. The crowd, although modest in numbers, was not short on spirit. They chanted “C-A-R-D-S” and “Beat UK” cheers as the team made their way to the fence to greet fans. As the Cardinals were landing in Louisville, the Kentucky Wildcats were sealing a Final Four bid of their own with a win over Baylor to set up a battle for the ages.
The epic battle on Bourbon Street for a chance at the NCAA National Championship is a big deal for the state of Kentucky. “It’s going to be a very fun week for everybody . . . because the people here appreciate good basketball,” commented assistant coach Richard Pitino.
Freshman political science major Joel Thomas says about the match-up, “It shows how big basketball is to our state, how big it is to our culture and how excited the state’s going to be.”
The two teams have a historic past, but never has there been a single game of this magnitude. Louisville and Kentucky will meet for the 44th time Saturday; the two teams only met 12 times prior to the 1983 NCAA tournament, dating back to 1913.
The teams began their annual rivalry, coined as “The Dream Game,” in the 1983-84 season. Kentucky leads the rivalry with a record of 29-14 over the Cardinals.
The teams have met in the NCAA tournament four times, all prior to the 64-team expansion in 1985. The last meeting was in the 1984 Sweet Sixteen in which Kentucky won. The farthest into the tournament they have ever met was in the Elite Eight in 1983 in which the Cards emerged victorious.
This week’s competition places the two schools, separated by only 76 miles, on the ultimate stage — and a little more than bragging rights are at stake.
In their annual meeting this season, the Wildcats defeated the Cardinals 69-62 in Rupp Arena in what was a more lopsided game than the score reveals. Using this as a gauge for the upcoming game, it seems it would be easy to discount Louisville’s chances against an athletic Kentucky team, but Cards’ fans have faith in their team.
Recent SGA president elect Justin Brandt says, “I think UK, when you look at brute talent, has us, but we’ve demonstrated that we have a chemistry and a tenacity that can give anyone a challenge.”
Joel Thomas adds, “This is total redemption for me. A month ago, I wasn’t sure that we would make it very far in the tournament at all, but now the fact that we’re in the Final Four and we’ve been playing some pretty good basketball, my thoughts have changed completely.”
In the press conference that followed the Florida game, Rick Pitino stated that he asked his players to “not be satisfied by going.”
Both teams will begin to prepare for one of the biggest match-ups in the state’s history, but the fans will have to wait until Saturday, when New Orleans showcases one of the most bitter basketball rivalries of all time, on the Final Four stage.
Photos: Nathan Gardner/The Louisville Cardinal