Kentucky holds on late, beats rival Louisville 75-73 at Rupp Arena

Kentucky was at home, up 16 and cruising thanks to a great performance from Tyler Ulis. The game wasn’t over, but it kind of felt that way. And yet there we were, with just 12.6 seconds left, and, somehow, Louisville had done enough late to give itself a shot for a win.

Only problem?

It was a stepback, off-balanced 3-pointer from Damion Lee that wasn’t close.

And it was taken so late Louisville had no chance to grab an offensive rebound.

So Kentucky won, Louisville lost.

And now John Calipari is 8-1 vs. Rick Pitino since becoming UK’s coach.

Kentucky senior Alex Poythress finished with 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks.

“He’s in a great frame of mind,” Calipari said after the 12th-ranked Wildcats recorded the 75-73 victory over the 16th-ranked Cardinals inside Rupp Arena. “I’m really proud of him.”

There were 40 fouls called, literally one for every minute of basketball. So let’s not pretend it was pretty. But this Saturday affair was … fun. If nothing else, fun. Undeniably fun. Two rivals coached by two rivals going back and forth — throwing alley-oops, making long 3-pointers and, thanks to Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku, even taking underhanded free throws.

A good sign that UK was in good shape at halftime was the fact that the Wildcats were up 44-36 despite getting almost nothing from their three most heralded freshmen — namely Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. Labissiere was 0-of-3. Murray was 0-of-5. Briscoe wasn’t even playing because of an ankle injury suffered in warmups.

And yet Kentucky was still in complete control.

The Wildcats turned that 44-36 lead into a 52-36 lead in roughly two minutes; that’s when it started to feel kind of over. But Louisville rallied to cut the deficit to 65-64 with 5:29 remaining and, suddenly, the game was capable of going either direction — although, it should be noted, the Cardinals never actually tied or took the lead down the stretch.

Lee finished with a game-high 27 points on 20 attempts from the field.

His last attempt would’ve been remembered forever had it fallen.

But, again, it wasn’t really close.

“Going into the huddle, I said, ‘Give me the ball. I want this last shot,” Lee told The Courier-Journal afterward. “I wanted to go for the kill.”

The end-result of a wild Saturday is this: Louisville is now 11-2 with losses at No. 1 Michigan State and at No. 12 Kentucky. But the Cardinals are still searching for their first quality win, and they won’t play another currently ranked team until they host No. 5 Virginia on Jan. 30. Meantime, Kentucky is 10-2 with wins over No. 15 Duke and No. 16 Louisville. The Wildcats’ losses came at UCLA and on a neutral-court to Ohio State, and they, like Louisville, also won’t play another currently ranked team until they visit No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 30.

That’s both a good and a bad thing.

The good is that this upcoming stretch against mostly average opponents will allow Calipari and Pitino to continue to develop their teams without much risk of taking losses. But the bad is that both schools will continue to be questioned by objective observers.

Why?

Because Louisville has dominated awful teams but accomplished little else.

And, sure, Kentucky has wins over Duke and Louisville.

But how good is Duke?

And how good is Louisville?

And what about those losses to teams (UCLA, Ohio State) that are currently unranked?

These are fair questions to ask, at this point. And they’re questions that’ll continue to be asked as the year flips to 2016. Both teams are good, clearly. But is either great? I’m not sure anybody knows for certain. Either way, go ahead and circle Jan. 30 on your calendar … or at least set a reminder on your iPhone. Because that’s going to be a fun day of college basketball, and a huge day for the two best programs in the state of Kentucky.

Alex Poythress (USATSI)
Kentucky’s Alex Poythress dunks in the Wildcats’ 75-73 win vs. Louisville. (USATSI)

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