LEXINGTON, Ky.—There are few times when Louisville coach Rick Pitino turns a blind eye toward his team for the type of first half it played against Kentucky.
The Cardinals shot 5-of-29 from the field, committed 12 turnovers with zero assists, and scored only 19 points. But they held Kentucky, a heavy home-court favorite, to just 27 points—and Pitino said it's worth sacrificing statistics to stifle the stands.
“I didn't mind, believe it or not, the ugliness of the first half,” Pitino said. “That type of offense wasn't good, but being down only eight points was really helping us because the crowd wasn't as big of a factor as it could have been.”
Louisville is used to playing in front of 19,000-plus fans at its own Freedom Hall, but the Cardinals had ventured away from it for a true road game only once before Saturday. That trip led to Louisville's first loss of the season, a 76-71 defeat to UNLV.
Entering Big East Conference play, there wasn't a better way to bookend losses on the non-conference slate than with a competitive, if not better-than-expected, performance against Kentucky.
Senior guard Edgar Sosa said he knew the magnitude a victory would carry amongst Cardinals fans, but insisted that a conference win over Providence this Wednesday would mean more.
“We know the fans wait for this game every year. This is all they think about,” Sosa said. “But losing to the No. 3 team in the country in their home is not all that bad in the RPI. Big East play is much more important.”
So the Cardinals lost—took the football-basketball sweep for the first time since 2003-2004, actually.
But in leaving Rupp Arena with its fourth loss in 14 games, Louisville made some statements.
The Cardinals came out in the second half and turned the Wildcats' 13-point lead to dust, eventually taking their first and only lead with 9:51 left to play. The one-point advantage didn't last, but it showed resilience.
Louisville ultimately out-muscled Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson on the glass, 39 rebounds to 38. The rebounding edge didn't propel the Cardinals to victory, but it showed toughness.
Sophomore Jared Swopshire overcame a technical foul and air ball on his first field-goal attempt (as well as the chants that wouldn't let him forget it) to tally all 10 of his points in the second half. Swopshire was one of three Cardinals in double figures, but his performance showed versatility.
Resilience, toughness, and versatility are all traits of Louisville's Big East-winning squad from last season. It's no coincidence they've all been missing at the start of this one.
Swopshire said the Cardinals had noticed things like that, prompting them to step up and face Kentucky's physicality head on.
“We're not going to back down from anybody. We accepted this challenge,” Swopshire said. “We started out slow, but like coach (Pitino) said, 'just got to stay positive, stick to the game plan.' And we came out in the second half, and ran through our stuff, and that's how we came back.”
More challenges—drawn out, seemingly endless challenges—are ahead for Louisville.
The Cardinals are 1-0 in the Big East after dismantling a shorthanded South Florida team last Wednesday, but three of their next 10 opponents are ranked. Louisville plays Cincinnati, Seton Hall, and St. John's twice in that time span as well—all teams on the verge of the Top 25.
Looking at his team after playing Kentucky, Pitino said he sees the necessary improvement coming to handle conference play.
“We've got a lot of growth to our basketball team, which is good,” Pitino said. “We've just got to keep on doing little things, getting better fundamentally. (Kentucky's) pressure was great for us because we're going to see that again against certain Big East teams.”
In playing a crazy-talented, extra-physical Kentucky team in Rupp Arena as close as the likes of Connecticut and North Carolina, Louisville displayed the will to compete.
The signature victory will follow sometime. It has to with all the opportunities presented in the Big East.
And with it, this season's Cardinals will finally find out how to seal the big one and land in the Big Dance, putting one measly rivalry loss to No. 3 Kentucky out of sight—just not out of mind.
Even in losing, the trip to Rupp Arena proved worthwhile for Louisville's long-term betterment.