By Matt Bradshaw —
A chilly Saturday morning dawned on Louisville and the first U of L/UK rivalry bout of the Chris Mack era. Odds predicted a close contest, but the No. 16 Wildcats (10-2) prevailed from the outset for a 71-58 victory over the Cardinals (9-4).
The Cards found a footing and stayed close early on, but Mack’s squad struggled shooting, rebounding and repeatedly turned the ball over in costly ways. They finished shooting 36 percent from the field and failed to come within eight points of the lead following the first half.
“I just don’t think we played very well, especially offensively. I thought we played hard, I thought our kids competed,” Mack said. “But offensively, we were out of sorts and a lot of that has to do with their length, their athleticism.”
Head coach John Calipari has dominated college basketball’s biggest rivalry with a 10-2 record since his arrival in Lexington. Though his 2018-19 team has struggled, they bounced back from a big win over No. 9 North Carolina to a solid victory over unranked Louisville.
“The job Chris has done with this team,” Calipari said. “They’ve played quality teams and they’ve performed.”
The Cats began shooting 5-for-5 from the field, boding a great shooting performance and depleted defense from the Cardinals the rest of the matchup.
Graduate guard Christen Cunningham led U of L with 20 points while sophomore Jordan Nwora added 17 points. The rest of the team shot 5-for-24 from the floor combined.
“Hopefully this becomes a lesson that we can learn from. We have to be a little more patient, probably more my fault than anything,” Mack said. “I haven’t done a good enough job for us to figure out how to play deeper into the shot clock. And you have to do that against what I consider as an elite defensive team.”
Freshman Tyler Herro played a standout game with 24 points for Kentucky and deadly shooting from deep.
The KFC Yum! Center rocked loud and proud for Louisville in what was certainly the most packed the arena has been all season. Nonetheless, Big Blue Nation found a way to embed themselves all over the venue and remain a very vocal presence.
“We didn’t do our part to give our fans some juice in the stands,” Mack said.
Sophomore Darius Perry got things going for the Cards with five straight points, but the Wildcats controlled the floor. They led 11-8 at the first media timeout, shooting 5-for-5 from the field.
A back-and-forth contest from the get go, Cunningham scored five straight points for a Louisville lead and Kentucky silenced the crowd by taking it right back. The Cardinals trailed 16-15 with 11 minutes left in the first half.
Continued turnovers from U of L and second chance points for UK gave the visitors a big lead at 29-17. Kentucky’s Herro led the offense with 12 crucial points.
The home team’s scoring drought continued until the Cats had their largest lead at 31-17. Louisville cut into the deficit as time winded down, and a buzzer-beating dunk from Nwora made Kentucky’s lead 35-27 at halftime.
All told, the Wildcats won the opening half with superior shooting, rebounding and defense. The Cardinals started out strong then turned sloppy, shooting poorly and turning the ball over far too much.
UK continued to hold its lead out the gates while U of L struggled to keep up. Junior Dwayne Sutton committed his third foul as the Cats led 43-33 at the first media timeout.
Louisville reached the danger zone as they trailed 47-35 with 12 minutes to play. At this point, the Cardinals were shooting a measly 32 percent from the field to Kentucky’ 49 percent and 30 points in the paint.
With three minutes to play, the energy seemed to leave the Cards as they trailed 61-49. UK’s defense, with seven blocks and eight steals and 13 points off 12 turnovers, suffocated U of L throughout.
With their 71-58 victory, Kentucky has taken 10 out of its last 12 games against Louisville (Cats lead the all-time series 36-16). The Wildcats have won back-to-back following a 90-61 thrashing at Rupp Arena last year.
Halfway through the 2018-19 sports year, Kentucky holds the edge in the rivalry across all sports. They won in football, men’s soccer, volleyball and now men’s basketball. Louisville took the women’s basketball and women’s soccer contests.
Men’s basketball hosts Miami on Sunday, Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. to begin the new year.
You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.
Photos by Nancy Hanner / The Louisville Cardinal