LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- For a five-minute flash at the beginning of the second half against arch-rival Kentucky, the University of Louisville had people hailing it as the nation's best basketball team.
Up 17 on the Wildcats, this was one more score, one more turnover, from turning into New Year's Eve come early on Main Street in Louisville.
The Wildcats put that party on hold. They stormed back, sparked by a pair of Kyle Wiltjer three-pointers. And they came all the way back, nearly, down the stretch, with the game within two possessions for much of the final minutes. U of L made the bigger plays late to win 80-77. It ended its losing streak to UK. It showed flashes of what it can do.
But in the locker room, even the celebration was dialed back. The Cards slipped into survival mode to win -- but could have put this one away on cruise control without some mistakes once their defense got going.
"You always celebrate a rivalry win," said junior guard Russ Smith, who finished with 21 points. "And I give Kentucky all the credit for coming back. . . . We know where we messed up and we know the mistakes we made, but at the end of the day it's a win. It's not a conference win but it's a great non-conference win. It's a great win for the city. We're actually more happy for our fans than for ourselves."
This could have been much worse -- as talented as Kentucky is, and as well as it played down the stretch. At one point in the second half, Archie Goodwin threw a pass up for grabs against the press that reeked of a player just wanting to get out from under the heat. But late in the game, Goodwin was the one delivering heat, making huge shot after huge shot in the closing minutes to nearly pull off the comeback.
One of the last pieces for this U of L team is patience amid prosperity. Sometimes, the Cards will get on a run and rush themselves on the offensive end. It happened against UK. Up 17, there was a quick shot and a Wiltjer three. There was a quick drive and another Wiltjer three. On both threes, a U of L player in transition ran to the wrong side of the 2-3 zone.
Those threes steadied the Wildcats, and the Cardinals lost their defensive edge -- an edge that dulled even more when Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith got into deep foul trouble, with four apiece.
U of L coach Rick Pitino talked some about his team's mistakes after the game. He also didn't want to talk about them too much, because he didn't want to take away from what UK had done. And UK made mistakes of its own, particularly in the final minutes once it was a game again.
UK coach John Calipari chided himself for not calling a timeout when Archie Goodwin was trapped and threw a long pass that Chane Behanan stole and deposited with a dunk with 17 seconds left to put U of L up 80-74.
"I cost us the game," he said. ". . . This young team, their job is to get it close at the end, my job is to give them a plan to finish it off. I dropped the ball."
In the U of L locker room, senior Peyton Siva was saying much the same things. He blamed himself for going under a ball screen instead of over on a late three-pointer by Goodwin. He was called for a fifth foul on a made three-pointer by Goodwin.
"We played a very good game," Siva said. "We played a solid first half, and then we let foul trouble put us on our heels in the second half. We just have to keep playing. But we overcame foul trouble and beat a very good team. The mistakes we made, we can fix."
Even with Dieng rusty, the Cardinals outscored a talented UK team in the paint 44-28. They outscored the Wildcats on the fast break 20-2. But the areas that were supposed to be big edges for U of L, the bench (UK's outscored U of L's 21-15) and turnovers (U of Ls' edge was only 19-14 in points off them) weren't the main factors.
UK, of course, has many issues it can fix, too, starting with its free-throw shooting (11 of 23).
Both sides had players you figure would be big factors were weren't -- Julius Mays had only three points for UK and Alex Poythress had seven. Wayne Blackshear had just five for U of L.
But there is upside aplenty for both. Think about this, after a pair of Wiltjer free throws pulled UK within 10 with just under 10 minutes left, all but three of the rest of UK's points came from freshmen.
"I marvel at what (Calipari) does with young players," Pitino said. "Two weeks ago I didn't think they were very good. . . . Now they're a hell of a team."
And U of L? The Cardinals are a team good enough to win it all, but they will have to learn to finish things off. The Cardinals have upside of their own. Blackshear is only beginning to come around. Dieng was a bit behind on defense. Chane Behanan is getting it going. He had 20 points and seven rebounds, but also had three steals with only one turnover.
From his sideline perch while calling the game, CBS analyst Greg Anthony couldn't contain himself during U of L's massive defensive run: "Louisville grinds on you the entire 40 minutes," he wrote. "They never let you breathe and this year they are such a better decision making team in half-court."
They didn't always prove him right down the stretch, but Pitino agreed, "We were playing great, but what happens to teams that live by the pressure, if you get bad fouls you can let the air out of the balloon. . . . I'm real proud of our team's victory, but we really made some bad defensive plays, and give Kentucky credit for capitalizing on it."
The good news for Louisville is that this season, unlike last season's team at times, it has enough offensive weaponry to overcome that.
Everyone agreed that UK is not likely to be a team anyone wants to play in March.
If it stays healthy and keeps improving, U of L is going to be one of the three or four teams expected to have the best chance to win it all. Not too many people will want to see the Cardinals in March, either.