The No. 4 Louisville Cardinals weathered serious foul trouble and a furious comeback by their arch rival Kentucky Wildcats to pull out a 80-77 home victory on Saturday in the Battle for the Bluegrass.
The dynamic, experienced Cardinals backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva scored 21 and 19 points respectively, rising to the occasion as expected. But it was forward Chane Behanan who played biggest early on to give Louisville what proved to be a valuable cushion.
CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein was impressed, as the sophomore had a game-high 11 points and five rebounds in the opening 20 minutes (and by "clock" we know he means "click"):
Love what Chane Behanan contributed in the first half. Such a force in the paint and on the boards. It's all starting to clock.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 29, 2012
Pat Forde of Yahoo! described the early action, as the Cardinals began to assert their will on the defensive end:
Louisville pressure finally getting to UK ball handlers. Flurry of turnovers, flurry of transition points, UL up 20-18. THE key to the game.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) December 29, 2012
After tight back-and-forth action in the opening 15 minutes, the Cardinals took the lead thanks to a 13-2 run. But a follow-up dunk by potential No. 1 overall pick Nerlens Noel and a subsequent three by Ryan Harrow knotted the game at 25.
Point guard Harrow, a North Carolina State transfer, built on his strong showing against Marshall, which was necessary against the duo of Siva and Smith. He finished with a strong all-around game: 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Seth Davis was impressed with Harrow's play in particular:
Ryan Harrow really playing a nice floor game. If you're a Kentucky fan you've gotta be jacked about that.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) December 29, 2012
The Cardinals capped off a 24-10 run to end the first half with a 33-25 lead, thanks to Siva's shooting from beyond the arc and stout defense.
A big reason why Louisville was able to take the big advantage at the break was partially due to marquee Wildcats Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein riding the pine, as Matt May of CatsPause.com observed:
Goodwin, Poythress and Cauley-Stein all have two fouls for Kentucky— Matt May (@TCPMattMay) December 29, 2012
Everything went south for Kentucky to start the second half. The return of injured Louisville center Gorgui Dieng forced the Wildcats into a lot of perimeter shots that they couldn't initially knock down.
Four UK turnovers in their first five possessions and some sharp shooting from Louisville opened the margin up to 49-34 with roughly 16 minutes remaining. That prompted ESPN's Scott Van Pelt to chime in:
Kentucky is like a piñata right now. They have been on the other end plenty in this series lately, but reeling right now— Scott Van Pelt (@notthefakeSVP) December 29, 2012
That would change quickly.
Two three-pointers by Kyle Wiltjer keyed a 10-0 bounce-back run by the Wildcats to cut the lead to seven points.
Even when Louisville's Smith used his blinding speed to get some key buckets as insurance, the Cardinals faced severe adversity. Siva, Dieng and Smith all had four fouls by the 9:17 mark of the second half, which forced Louisville to weather a huge storm.
With six minutes left and the lead suddenly cut to 63-59, Pitino brought Dieng and Siva back out to the court to help Smith.
Nick Coffey of CardinalConnect.com was not impressed and felt that Kentucky wasn't changing anything, but simply out-executing Louisville down the stretch:
This doesn't look good. Complete collapse from Louisville. UK hasn't changed anything.— Nick Coffey (@TheCardConnect) December 29, 2012
The experience of Louisville won out in the end, keyed by Smith's explosiveness in getting to the basket and the post game of Behanan to give the Cardinals supple offense as the game wound down.
Kentucky's Goodwin certainly made things interesting. The sweet-shooting freshman guard notched a four-point play in the last minute to cut the lead to 77-74. Unfortunately, Goodwin made an ill-advised cross-court pass that Behanan stole and dunked at the other end to clinch the Cardinals' win.
It was undoubtedly a heartbreaking loss for the Wildcats. CBS analyst Wally Szczerbiak had a great point about their resilience, though:
An 11-of-23 showing from the free-throw line really hurt Kentucky in the end, but this is a very young team that isn't likely to go away after such a heated battle against one of the premier teams in the country.
It would be unwise to rule out another encounter between these two nemeses on the March Madness stage in 2013.
Until then, the Cardinals have bragging rights after a hard-fought, well-deserved win.