LOUISVILLE, Ky. –- The pregame hype video at the KFC Yum! Center interspersed highlights of Louisville players with classic moments from Muhammad Ali.
The grainy footage from the late heavyweight champ showed off the ridiculous speed of Ali’s punches. The Greatest’s hometown team knew it would have to absorb some ultra-quick jabs from archrival Kentucky on Wednesday. The No. 10 Cardinals hoped that, like Ali, they could get tougher as the fight went on and find a way to survive.
That approach worked to perfection in a 73-70 win over the No. 6 Wildcats that served as a much-needed balm for Louisville fans everywhere. Rick Pitino was just 1-8 in his first nine games against Kentucky since John Calipari arrived in Lexington, a fact members of Big Blue Nation loved to point out to their friends and neighbors.
To finally get back in the rivalry win column, the Cardinals had to slow perhaps Calipari’s most explosive team. Kentucky came into the night averaging 95.2 points per game and just 13.8 seconds per possession. In the game’s first few minutes, the Wildcats showed off their breathtaking end-to-end speed, getting to the rim for three easy scores in a blue blur after Louisville made baskets. That will drive any coach mad, but especially one as defensive-minded as Pitino.
Those turned out to be just body blows. Louisville adjusted to the quickness of Kentucky’s outlets and began sprinting back on defense. The Cardinals eventually turned the Wildcats into a halfcourt team and exposed their biggest weakness: questionable outside shooting.
Of course, when Malik Monk is raining 3-pointers like he did in a 47-point outburst against North Carolina on Saturday in Las Vegas, that weakness doesn’t exactly shine through. But what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas for the superstar freshman, as Monk scored only 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting. He went 1-for-9 on 3s, with his first make coming with 10.4 seconds left. This a few days after he sank eight of 12 from behind the arc against the Tar Heels.
Credit Louisville’s defense, which played up to its No. 1 spot in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. The Cardinals were able to get set up in their zone and prevent those leakouts that plagued them early on. After those six fast-break points in the opening minutes, Kentucky finished with just 12 total for the game.
Without the ability to fly down the court for lobs and layups and without a rescue effort from Monk, the Wildcats struggled to generate good looks against Louisville’s length. They shot just 39.7 percent from the field and went 5-for-22 on 3s.
Calipari’s team had scored fewer than 87 points only once all season -- in a 69-48 win over Michigan State.
This was exactly the kind of defensive effort Pitino must have envisioned, yet even with that and a career game from point guard Quentin Snider (22 points, five assists, six rebounds), the Cardinals had to hold on for dear life.
Monk’s lone 3 sliced the lead to a single point, which Donovan Mitchell increased to three after a pair of free throws with 8.2 seconds left. Monk got a look off a screen to tie the game in the final seconds, but his 3 grazed the front of the rim.
It went down as another defensive stop in the half court for Louisville. And this one provided the final knockout blow.