LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – It seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? I’m talking about Kentucky’s 118-84 humiliation at the hands of Duke on Nov. 6. It was such a shocking outcome that many in Big Blue Nation went into panic mode, which upset Coach John Calipari.
Reminding the fan base that it was only one loss – and early in the season, at that – Calipari advised against giving up on his team so quickly. It was something of a hard sell, especially when the Wildcats lost to Seton Hall on a neutral floor only a week after Louisville had defeated the Pirates on their home court.
Oh, ye of little faith.
After the Cats’ 71-58 thumping of the Cards Saturday in the KFC Yum! Center, Calipari didn’t do any gloating. But the did smiling state the obvious: “We’re getting better and better.”
It was UK’s third-consecutive impressive performance since mid-December, when sophomore guard Quade Green abruptly quit the team and transferred to Washington. Suddenly the pieces seemed to fall together, especially in the backcourt, where freshmen Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans began to step up on both ends of the floor.
Against UofL, it was Herro’s turn to be, well, the hero.
Shooting over UofL’s shorter defenders or driving around them, the 6-foot-5 Herro scored a game-high and career-best 24 points in a game the Wildcats controlled after an 15-2 spurt late in the first half catapulted them to a decisive 31-17 lead that the Cards never seriously threatened.
It was a matter both of excellent defense by UK and atrocious offense by UofL. The Cards disappointed their fans with their lowest point total and field-goal percentage of the season. For the game, Louisville made only five of its 20 three-point attempts, none of which came from its best outside shooter, Ryan McMahon.
Perhaps the most glaring stat to come out of the game was UK’s 42-22 scoring advantage in the paint. UK’s inside players were simply tougher than their UofL counterparts. In addition, the Wildcats had better ball movement than UofL, whose offense at times seemed to consist of little more than dribble, dribble, dribble, fire up a three.
The Wildcat rebounders were at their best during that decisive 15-2 stretch in the first half. Several times the Cats got two or even three offensive rebounds. Inside players such as Reid Travis, the 6-8 senior transfer from Stanford, and 6-8 sophomore PJ Washington kept the ball alive until Herro or 6-6 freshman swingman Keldon Johnson (15 points) could put it in.
EJ Montgomery, a 6-10 freshman, also came off the bench to give the Cats another big body in the lane.
“Our length kinda bothered them,” said Calipari. “Our length should bother a lot of people.”
Chris Mack, coaching in his first UK-UofL game, said his offense was out of sync the entire game. The Cards’ most effective player offensively was guard Christen Cunningham, a native of Lexington bedroom community Georgetown and former player at Henry Clay High. He connected on eight of his 14 shots and scored a team-high 20 points.
The only other Card in double figures was sophomore forward Jordan Nwora, who scored 17 but also never looked comfortable against the UK defense.
Mack never used McMahon’s shooting range to spread the UK defense. They also never set any screens to get him an open shot from outside. Instead of looking for McMahon, his teammates kept firing up three-pointers that seldom were even close to going in.
The game was lower-scoring than expected, played at a tempo that should have been to UofL’s liking. But UK proved it can win a half-court game as impressively as it can a run-and-gun shootout. Inexplicably, the visitors looked more poised and energetic than the home team.
All in all, UofL’s performance was not the kind you like to see heading into Atlantic Coast Conference play. The fan base had become excited over the team’s better-than-expected play heading into the UK game. But now many doubts and questions have resurfaced, particularly concerning the Cards’ ability to score.
But Saturday’s game was mostly about how UK now is playing as expected. This certainly isn’t to say that if and when they play Duke again, they’ll be able to beat the most talented team in the nation. But they also shouldn’t get whipped by 34.
In his postgame press conference, Calipari was asked about the fans who got so far down on the team so early in the season.
“There’s a small percentage out there that are just crazy,” he said. “I don’t pay any attention to them. They will never steal my joy. I don’t listen. You just make yourself angry and go crazy.”
Chris Mack surely understands that.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter from Louisville who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.