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Quentin Snider etches career night into Louisville-Kentucky legend

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Just minutes after the final buzzer, Quentin Snider was in the concrete concourse undercarriage of the KFC Yum! Center, ostensibly on his way to ... well, somewhere. It was hard to tell, actually, and Snider didn't seem to know. The locker room? A postgame interview? He was moving with purpose, just as he had all night, past media members with rolling phone cameras and a cheering throng of Louisville fans and friends and family members, when suddenly -- in a way Kentucky could never quite manage in Snider's 37 minutes on the floor Wednesday night -- somebody stopped him cold.

It was his teammate Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell and Snider had just left the floor together, but no matter: The former embraced his point guard, lifting him clear off the ground, less like a teammate than a brother long lost.

Eventually, the Louisville native would make it back to the locker room. Once there, he would calmly describe his commanding 22-point, 6-assist, 5-rebound, 2-steal performance in the Cardinals' 73-70 win over hated rival Kentucky -- perhaps the best, and undoubtedly the most important, game of his career -- in fairly straightforward terms.

The rivalry. The incessant trash talk coming from all sides. His desired revenge for last season's performance at Rupp Arena. How "big" it all was.

"It's very big, especially when you're from the city, as a kid growing up watching that rivalry game," Snider said. "So it's big."

Good effort, but too late. The hug had already said it all.

The magnitude of the victory Snider and the Cardinals achieved Wednesday night is hard for interlopers to understand, but to those who live and breathe it, who obsess year-round about the Cards or the 'Cats, there is no date on the calendar more important. On Tuesday, John Calipari lamented that "everybody makes it life or death and it's not life or death -- it's worse than that," and he was only barely exaggerating.

Even worse: Kentucky arrived at the Yum! Center having won seven of the past eight matchups between the teams, including at the 2012 Final Four. The Wildcats had won each of the past three. But a fourth straight? Another on Louisville's home floor? For the fans in red, nothing could be worse.

"You want it to be a great rivalry, not come close," Rick Pitino said -- after joking that if the Cardinals had lost he would have stayed in Miami after Christmas break and told his assistant, Kenny Johnson, to take over. "You've got to get a victory. We finally did."

No one was more crucial in that respect than Snider. Pitino's team entered Wednesday night's game with the nation's stingiest per-possession defense relative to the opposition, per KenPom.com, yet another trademark Pitino batch of length and strength and tactical flexibility. But 11 games into the season, the Cardinals had struggled to shoot the ball, relying instead -- thanks to turnover-related caution and copious offensive rebounding -- on sheer shot volume.

In the first 11 games, no Louisville player had managed to score 20 points.

Snider's 22 broke that strange little streak Wednesday, and comprised a rounded scoring diet to boot. There were a couple of looping 3s, one in the first half and one in the second; there were canny ball screens and pull-up jumpers off the dribble; there were finishes at the rim.

Two of the most important came in the final three minutes. At the 2:47 mark, Snider drove left, pump-faked and found himself closed off, and still hit an awkward little leaner to give the Cardinals a 67-62 lead. Then, a minute later, Snider dribbled off a screen and into a switch with Kentucky freshman big Bam Adebayo. Snider saw it and immediately hit the NBA2K move stick -- jab dribbles this way and that, an attempt, he would say later, "to dance on him."

The dance worked. Adebayo went flying in the wrong direction, Snider jutted past another defender, and by the time he was at the rim there were no Wildcats left to guard him.

And yet those scores only hint at the impact Snider made. He was also charged with guarding either Isaiah Briscoe, UK's muscle-bound wrecking ball of a guard, or, depending on the situation, De'Aaron Fox, UK's lanky lightning bolt. Neither is a remotely easy assignment, but Snider held up -- his two steals doubled his season total to date -- and after some early transition breakdowns, Louisville's defense held firm.

"Quentin played a big-time game," Pitino said.

The tenor of this mutual ode to antagonism makes it difficult to exaggerate. It's hardly a stretch to imagine Wednesday night going down -- on both sides, with perhaps a few more four-letter words inserted from the folks in blue -- as a proper noun. The Quentin Snider Game.

And, as if that wasn't enough, there's a redemption arc here, too. A season ago in Lexington, Snider finished his 20 minutes on the floor with zero points and an offensive rating of (gulp) 20. That night stayed with Snider, stuck in his head all year, made Wednesday night's game more than just another big rivalry night, the culmination of all those texts and tweets that come rolling in as the game approached. It was personal.

"He was a lot more vocal [this week] than I've ever see him," Mitchell said. "He was focused, locked in throughout the week. Being a local kid and having a game like this, where you watch this for your whole life, it means so much for him. I know how much this game meant to him. Last year, he didn't play very well in this game, and he just kept talking to me about, 'I need to get 'em back this year.' He did just that."

In recent days, Pitino had done his best to keep his team as insulated from the outside world as possible. Everything was structured, more so than usual, even a team trip to see "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." But the game, and everything that came with it, would find its way in. Eventually, UL-UK, and everything it meant, would seep through.

"I said, 'Look, guys, I don't know how many more Kentucky vs. Louisville games I have left.' I hope I coach five, seven, eight more of them. But you have to really enjoy it, because you are not going to experience this too much," Pitino said. "When you look at college basketball on the screen sometimes, you don't see this type of atmosphere. You have to really, really enjoy it. And they did tonight."

The hug had already confirmed as much: No one enjoyed it more than Quentin Snyder.