LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Don’t let that final score fool you. Louisville’s 73-70 win over Kentucky basketball on Wednesday night was not some valiant near-miss. The young Wildcats broke under the weight of the moment, lost their minds amid the throbbing sound inside the KFC Yum! Center.
The 10th-ranked Cardinals (11-1) made sixth-ranked Kentucky (10-2) play their game.
“They made big plays, played behind the energy of the crowd,” which was almost 23,000 strong, Kentucky’s freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “It was ridiculous. That was our first true road game, a rivalry, that’s a top-10 school. It was incredible.”
Unless you were John Calipari, who fell to 2-6 in road openers as Kentucky’s coach. He always has freshman-heavy teams, and the kids are rarely ready to handle the stress. He knows this is likely coming every year.
Doesn’t mean he has to like it when they inevitably short-circuit at the first sight of a hostile environment. The Wildcats missed 5 of 8 free throws in the final 3:13 of Wednesday’s game, and that was hardly the worst of it.
“On the 21st of December, we’re not good enough to go on an opponent’s court that’s a top-10 team and win,” Calipari said. “And that’s what we wanted to see. The issue for us: If we don’t become more of a disciplined team, then we’re just OK.”
He used that word – discipline – a lot. Eight times in an eight-minute postgame news conference, to be exact.
Because his Wildcats shot just 39.7 percent from the field, had more turnovers (13) than assists (10) and turned Louisville’s Quentin Snider into a legend in his hometown as the junior guard torched UK for 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals.
Meanwhile, Fox had more turnovers than assists for the first time in his young Cats career and freshman guard Malik Monk followed a 47-point game Saturday against North Carolina with a 1-for-9 shooting night beyond the arc Wednesday.
“If we had discipline, we could have won the game. We had none,” Calipari said. “But it’s good for us. Maybe they now know you just can’t play, just do your own thing, and win a big-time college game.”
The Wildcats gave up costly offensive rebounds – Louisville outscored them 11-4 on second-chance points – including a gut-punch putback with 16 ticks remaining. Kentucky took awful shots from the perimeter, often ignoring the one guy who was not intimidated by the moment: freshman forward Bam Adebayo.
He looked unstoppable in the paint, hitting 5 of 6 shots and throwing down an array of nasty dunks, but the guards wouldn’t give him more chances. The starting backcourt instead uncorked 37 shots and made only 14. The mistakes weren’t for lack of instruction.
Calipari said players walked out of huddles and immediately ditched the game plan, choosing to freelance instead.
“If we’re playing this way, I’ve accepted it,” he said. “That’s why it’s my fault. And I told them in there, ‘When we tell you to do something and you don’t do it, you’re coming out. So if I tell you how we’re playing, if you break down defensively and do your own thing, you’re out.’ It’s the easiest way. Bench is my friend.
“If you accept mediocrity as a coach, you’re gonna get it every time.”
So now the Wildcats must regroup. The players have off until Dec. 26 to go home and celebrate the holidays with family. Then Camp Cal – multiple practices a day without the distraction of schoolwork – resumes.
“Everybody needs a break,” Fox said. “After this, the real season is gearing up. It’s time for SEC play. The (NCAA) tournament will be here in no time.”
First, there are 18 conference games and a Jan. 28 home date with Kansas to contend with. That league slate starts a week from Thursday at Ole Miss. Fox is looking forward to another immediate opportunity to prove that a team starting four freshmen and a sophomore can thrive away from home.
“It was good for us to have a game like this,” he said. “There’s not too many environments like this in the country, especially with this rivalry we have. We probably won’t go into another arena like this one, even in the tournament. It was good. I’m not going to say it was a good loss for us, but it was good to have this game as our first road game.”