CRAWFORD | Despite Pitino finger-gate, Cards still had positives - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Despite Pitino finger-gate, Cards still had positives at Kentucky

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Tyler Ulis shoots over Trey Lewis in Kentucky's win over Louisville Saturday. (AP photo) Tyler Ulis shoots over Trey Lewis in Kentucky's win over Louisville Saturday. (AP photo)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — Ahh, the fickle finger of fate.

It was a great game the state rivals played, Kentucky’s 75-73 win over Louisville in Rupp Arena on Saturday. Not that either team executed so well, but they were as evenly matched as they have been in a while, both flawed but also with promise.

And there were great individual performances from guys who are easy to root for. Louisville got 27 points from Damion Lee and 15 from Trey Lewis. Kentucky got 21 points from Tyler Ulis and 14 from Alex Poythress.

It wasn’t as good a game as the teams played in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis 2014.

But Louisville had a chance, with 12.5 seconds left and the ball, to tie the game or win it. This even after Kentucky had made 11 threes in 23 attempts, a number that you’d figure would’ve sent fans for the exits long before the final horn.

Instead, Louisville erased a 16-point deficit in the second half and had this one chance. Lee took the ball, tried to drive on Poythress but was cut off, stepped back to try a three, briefly lost control of the ball when his hand brushed his jersey, and misfired on the game’s final shot.

The thing to talk about is Kentucky’s bounce back from a disheartening loss to Ohio State, and Ulis’ bounce-back from a nagging elbow injury. The topic of discussion should be Lee’s tenacity in a tough road environment, and freshman Donovan Mitchell’s second-half contributions.

I’m looking at the numbers right here. Louisville outscored Kentucky 38-24 in the paint, 18-14 off turnovers, 23-11 on second-chance points, 6-0 on the fast break and 19-18 off the bench. It outrebounded Kentucky 39-29 on its home court. It outscored Kentucky 37-31 in the second half, and at Rupp Arena, shot just three fewer free throws and made only one fewer.

You do all those things, you should win. But credit Kentucky. Ulis making threes from Tayshaun Prince distance. Dominique Hawkins burying three of four threes to finish with 13 points.

Pitino chose his poison with the zone defense. Kentucky responded by administering a lethal dose of three-point shooting. End of story. Wildcats win their fourth straight over the Cardinals, and eighth of the past nine between the teams.

“Look, they made jump shots that I wouldn’t want my guys to take,” Pitino told Bob Valvano in his postgame radio interview from Learfield Sports on the Louisville Network. “So you have to give them credit. Here’s a kid (Hawkins) that’s 1 for 9 and makes 3 out of 4. You’ve got to give them credit. That was the difference-maker in the game. They’re literally 7-8 feet behind the line, they make the shot. (Quentin Snider) has to know with Ulis. Hawkins is one thing, but Q had to know to get up on Ulis with time running out (on the shot clock). Just credit them.”

Instead, what everyone is talking about is a finger that Rick Pitino might or might not have flashed at a fan on his way up the tunnel after the postgame handshakes.

UK fans say he flashed his middle finger at the crowd. A member of U of L’s sports information team who was behind the coach said she never saw him “flip the bird,” but saw him wave his hand in a dismissive gesture.

Officially, U of L sports information director Kenny Klein said Pitino told him he did not extend his middle finger to anyone.

Perhaps there’s a third option, that Pitino was trying out a new style of “L’s up,” with a lower-case, “L.”

I don’t know. There’s phone video, but it’s inconclusive. In 2015, we still have phones that can’t get a clear shot of something?

I offer you Shakespeare. In Othello, Iago says: “Lay thy finger thus, and let thy soul be instructed.”

Instruction: There are three segments of fans in Kentucky tonight: Those who hope he didn’t, those who think he did, and those who wish he had. Think of it this way: Everybody’s happy. Or unhappy. I lose track.

More troubling is Pitino’s failure to speak to the media after a road game. Not that fans care. I don’t know if fans would care if he didn’t talk to reporters the rest of the season, so I’m not going to waste much time on this topic. And I don’t bring this up because I'm ticked off. I’ve taken this topic on before. Heck, we're lucky anymore that coaches don't pull a Donald Trump and ask for money to show up (oh wait, they do get paid to show up, by the millions).

But when outlets like The Washington Post are jumping on your university with both feet, anytime you have a chance to talk to national media outlets — or even regional outlets on the road — about something positive, you should take it. I think he’s hurting U of L when he doesn’t talk on the road, and that’s not my problem, but it is theirs.

And there were positives for U of L on Saturday, despite the loss in a game it could well have won. The Cardinals played hard and, in stretches, well. There were mistakes, but once again, after a month of playing lesser competition, this team showed it should be able to compete with anyone in the ACC.

And Pitino knows that.

“The second half is the way you’ve got to fight on the road,” Pitino told Valvano. “I said, look, you’re going to have eight or ten games like this where the crowds are just as ugly as this one was, and they’re going to yell the obscenities the same way, and you’ve got to fight through it and you can’t let it get to you.”

The Cardinals showed their youth early. They were rattled. Kentucky jumped out to an early 13-4 lead. But just as quickly, Louisville climbed back.

Pitino didn’t like the way his team played in the first half. He drew a technical for being out of the coaching box. He complained about the refs on his halftime interview with CBS, and again in his postgame interview with Valvano. And he acknowledged, he isn't just bothered by losing, he's bothered by losing to Kentucky.

“I don’t like losing, especially to these guys,” Pitino told Valvano. “It upsets me about as much as anything. I have to go out and see a high school tournament tonight, which I’m not looking forward to. I’ve got a day or two off, and I’m not going to enjoy myself after this loss. That being said, I’m proud of these guys, the way they fight. But we’ve got to understand we’ve got Wake Forest coming up. We hate losing to this basketball team.”

Then, Pitino followed this with a “but.”

“But the fight we’ve got in us,” he said. “I think this team can be very special someday. . . . I’ll tell you what. If we don’t take too many losses, come March, we’re going to be one hell of a basketball team.”

Lee finished with 27 points, even though he made just 8 of 20 shots. On the last shot, he wanted the ball. And Pitino gave it to him.

“The first thing we were going to do was have him come off, if he’s open he can shoot it, if not we’re throwing it into Nanu (Onuaku),” Pitino told Valvano. “If that’s not open, if neither guy is open, he’s going to get a pick and roll. They switched the pick and roll and he tried to have a pull back shot, which wasn’t a good shot, but you have to give credit to good defense. . . . I didn’t want a step-back situation like that, but you have to give your best player who is having a great night, you’ve got to give him his leeway.”

Pitino wasn’t happy with Lee and Lewis early. But as he asked Valvano after the game, you take those two graduate transfers away, what would the game have looked like? A 30-point blowout?

The freshman bright spot for Louisville was Mitchell. He played 21 minutes, but the Cardinals were plus-23 when he was on the court. He finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists.

“I did some good things,” Mitchell said. “But I made a lot of mistakes on defense. I gave up two or three three-pointers, just on things that if you’re not watching the games like a coach, you wouldn’t notice, but I’m going to be living with those for the next several days.”

The Cards are going to be living with this loss for a couple of days. They’re taking a couple of days off, then return home to begin their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.

In this game, they saw freshman Ray Spalding struggle. Pitino said it was because he didn’t absorb the scouting report. Snider struggled, because he was playing an elite point guard, and because he seemed to get knocked off track when a few shots wouldn’t fall. Onuaku was good when he was in there, but early foul trouble again plagued him.

Pitino said, “We have to get Damion Lee and Trey Lewis under control emotionally. I’ve got to get Trey so he doesn’t get too fired up and lose control of his head.”

Of course, Pitino sometimes needs to make sure he controls himself, too. When you're on the road, you show up and talk to the media afterward, not as a sign of respect to the media, but to the host team. You give them their due. It's the right thing to do. You can't rip your players for blowing an assignment, then blow one of yours.

But despite the frustration and disappointment, this shouldn't be missed. Pitino lowered his voice near the end of his radio interview, almost as if telling Valvano a secret.

“If I didn’t think this team was going to be special, somebody who could cut down the nets, I wouldn’t be this disappointed,” Pitino said. “I wouldn’t let them see how disappointed I am. Because I want to let Damion Lee and Trey Lewis see how it gnaws at me, how sick I am, because they’ve got to get that same feeling. They’ve never had it before.”

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