LEXINGTON, Ky. – Winning on the road with a freshman-heavy team is difficult, evidenced by Kentucky basketball’s 2-5 record in its first true road game of the season under coach John Calipari. Winning at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center is even harder, evidenced by the Cardinals’ 106-14 record there.
And yet, Calipari and the Cats have won on their rival’s home court twice in the last three tries, led both times by unlikely heroes: Josh Harrellson delivered 23 points and 14 rebounds in 2010 and freshman Tyler Ulis scored 14 off the bench in 2014. What did both players – and UK victories – have in common?
“Just bring the energy and bring the fight to them,” senior Derek Willis said Tuesday, on the eve of the sixth-ranked Wildcats’ latest road test against the 10th-ranked Cardinals. “Don’t get punched in the mouth first, basically.”
Thing is: Ulis quite literally did take the first blow two years ago. He caught a Chris Jones elbow and had blood streaming down his face in what has become a lasting image of the toughness that defined the diminutive point guard’s college career.
He got three stitches above his right eye and then dropped 12 points on U of L, including consecutive 3-point daggers, in the second half. Ulis didn’t punch first, but he hit back hardest.
“It was a pretty iconic moment,” Willis remembers. “We kind of have to have that (fight). In practice, with the stuff we’re doing, we’re being a lot more physical – rebounding drills we do every day now, defensive stuff.
“It’s going to be one of those games where it’s high-intensity. You almost have to play physical and want to fight someone if you want to have any chance of winning.”
Nobody makes Ulis bleed his own blood. Nobody! pic.twitter.com/CF5sqVSmyT
— Chad Theiss (@ChadTheiss) December 27, 2014
Rick Pitino’s teams typically defend aggressively – UK fans call it fouling liberally, knowing officials won’t call them all – and rebound ruggedly. Add a dash of bitter rivalry and this game is not for the faint of heart. It might help to have something extra in the tank.
Homegrown seniors Willis and Dominique Hawkins grew up dreaming of playing in a Cats-Cards showdown, and this will be their fourth and final shot.
“We take the same approach to every game,” Willis said, “but just personally, (this game) means a lot more to me.”
Hawkins scored a career-high 13 points and hit 3 of 4 threes in last year’s narrow, 75-73 escape at home against Louisville. He’s averaged 1.6 points and hit 24.1 percent of his 3-pointers in four seasons at Kentucky.
“Probably has a little edge that my other guys don’t, being from the state,” Calipari said. “Probably meant a little bit more.”
None of the Wildcats’ five 5-star freshmen are from Kentucky, and none of them have played in hornet’s nest like they will tonight at Louisville. It’s hard to win there, and Hawkins knows why. He hopes he can help the youngsters weather the early storm.
“Everybody gets a little nervous in their first true road game,” he said. “They’re a really good team and they’re going to bring it at us, and we’re going to just have to fight back at them.”
Like Harrellson and Ulis did before. Maybe Hawkins is that guy for this team, but Calipari suspects it might be someone else to whom this kind of slugfest is perfectly – a secret weapon who sat out last year’s rivalry showdown.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, a bulldozer on offense and bulldog on defense, missed the Louisville game after turning his ankle during pregame warm-ups.
“This is his kind of game,” Calipari said. “These kind of teams, I’m glad I pushed all these games back. UCLA, they were better than us. We weren’t ready for that game. Now let’s see if we’re ready for this game. Don’t know until we get in the ring.”