Being a long-time Kentucky fan, my memory is sated with thoughts of big wins and disappointing losses, but standing out above all other Wildcat basketball memories are the tussles the 'Cats and Cards have become entangled in over the years. From the original Dream Game, a Kentucky NCAA Tournament loss in March of 1983, to last year's overwhelming Wildcat win in the sparkling Yum? Center, the civil war series has brought fans on both sides of the rivalry moments to revel in, as well as games best forgotten -- For the record, the 'Cats lead the all-time series 28-14. Since the advent of the modern series -- beginning with UofL's win in the '83 NCAA tourney -- UK holds a 19-11 advantage, good for a somewhat satisfying .633 winning percentage.
As we look forward to Saturday's titanic tilt between the Commonwealth's flagship university and its nastiest rival, let's take a look back, because when I think of Louisville ...
I think of boy King Rex Chapman flying through the air with the greatest of ease as he throws down another thunderous slam, rocking the Freedom Hall foundation to its core, as the 'Cats blistered the Cards 85-51 in December of 1986, the worst Louisville loss since 1956.
Also in that game, UofL center Pervis Ellison executed one of the most exceptional blocked shots I've ever witnessed, as Chapman, perhaps a bit overconfident in his outstanding leaping ability, left the floor too soon, and was rejected by the 6-foot-11 Ellison. It mattered not, though, as the 'Cats continued to roll.
I think of Kentucky center Cedric Jenkins scoring his only points of the game on a tip-in at the buzzer giving the 'Cats a last milli-second 76-75 win. UK had to hold on tightly, as UofL erased a 13 point Wildcat halftime lead behind the terrific play of Herbert Crook (24 points) and Pervis Ellison (20 points).
King Rex once again came up big against UK's biggest rival by leading the 'Cats with 21 points, followed closely by Ed Davender's 20. Jenkins, the hero of heroes, added 11 rebounds to his memorable tip-in.
I think of Kentucky boy Patrick Sparks, the recipient of an unexpected pass from Kelenna Azubuike with just over four-seconds remaining, boldly squaring up from the deep corner of the Freedom Hall court, and being drilled by UofL's Ellis Myles as he let the 3-pointer fly.
UK, down by one, waited for what seemed like an eternity for the officials to check the clock and confirm the foul. It wasn't long after UK coach Tubby Smith -- in an attempt to take Sparks' mind off the free throws he was about to shoot -- asked the Muhlenberg County native, "So, what are you getting for Christmas," that the official put the ball into Sparks' sure hands and watched as he nailed, one after the other, all three charity tries, giving UK an improbable 60-58 lead with only six-tenths of a second remaining.
It was a game in which UK was on the receiving end of some good fortune, as Louisville's leading scorer, Juan Palacios, left the game only three minutes into the second half after having his eye scratched. After that, it was the Patrick Sparks show, as the UK guard scored 12 straight UK points, bringing the 'Cats to within 54-50. Louisville, clearly tiring, made only one basket after the 5:00 mark of the second stanza, clearing the way for yet another Wildcat victory in Freedom Hall.
Sparks finished his own little dream game with 25 points, carving out a place for himself at the UK legend's table.
I think of December 30, 1989. For that was the day the Unforgettables began constructing their once in a lifetime legacy.
The undermanned 'Cats, ravaged by defections and NCAA probation, welcomed to Rupp Arena the No. 8 ranked Louisville Cardinals. Led by big man Felton Spencer, super guard LaBradford Smith, and the mercurial, but very talented Jerome Harmon, the Cards were poised to spank the 'Cats in front of the nation. No one, not even the most dyed-in-the-wool big blue fan gave the 'Cats much of a chance of staying within striking distance of the high octane Cards, but on this day, UK was most definitely right for the fight.
A tight contest throughout, UK's undersized 6-foot-7 center, Reggie Hanson, absolutely schooled Felton, UofL's 7-foot center, outscoring the future pro 24 points to seven, keeping Kentucky in the contest. Also bringing their lunch pails to work were UK shooting guard Derrick Millar, who tossed in 13 points, along with future Unforgettables John Pelphrey (11 points), Richie Farmer (10 points), and Deron Feldhaus, who snagged 16 big rebounds.
But on this day, despite an heroic effort by the 'Cats, the Cardinals triumphed 86-79. The game, though, set the tone for the '90 season, and the two seasons which followed; UK was not going to back down from any challenge. Kentucky's stifling press, signature team work, along with the super-sized heart of its players, would not allow the talent-challenged 'Cats to accept defeat. No, this team would fight with all their undermanned might until the final horn. The Unforgettables were still embryonic, but growing with a quickness.
I think of Tony Delk. UK's All-America shooting guard was a great player, about that there is no debate. And one of his best days as a 'Cat came on December 23, 1995 (also the day Tim Couch committed to the football 'Cats).
Against a Louisville team reeling from academic suspensions -- swing Jason Osborne and forward/center Alex Sanders were both absent from the contest -- the No. 4 ranked Wildcats, led by Delk's 30 points, thoroughly dismantled what was left of Denny Crum's team in a meticulous display of a trapping press, and text book doubling down on the post. The result, a 89-66 win in front of a Rupp record crowd of 24,340.
UK's high pressure D forced 23 Cardinal turnovers (six by both Brian Kiser and Samaki Walker), and Kentucky out-rebounded UofL by 20 big boards (44-24) -- I believe that's the Paula Deen recipe for a bowl of blowout. The 'Cats held Louisville's only chance at victory, one DeJuan Wheat, to 17 points on 13 shots taken. In addition, Kentucky pilfered the Cards 12 times, with four steals by point guard Anthony Epps.
All of this, after Kentucky made only two of its first 22 shots, finding itself down 10-4 at the 10:00 mark of the first half. After that, it was Tony Delk time.
Delk connected on 10-of-17 shots from the floor, going 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, at one point, scoring 12 straight Big Blue points. Delk was unstoppable, unguardable, and unimaginably good as he torched the Cards from all over the court. He wasn't alone, though, for Antoine Walker, UK's man-child hybrid forward, tossed in 20 points and grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds. Also proving it wasn't all about Delk; 10 'Cats played in the contest, with nine registering an assist (only Allen Edwards, who played seven minutes, did not record a dime).
On that day, Kentucky spread the floor and went to work, leaving even the Louisville players at a loss, "I've got to give it to them," UofL's Samaki Walker said after the throttling. "They were the better team today."
Mr. Walker, fortunately that statement would be true on most days, but will today be one of those days? We'll find out as the 'Cats and Cards take to the hardwood in what should be considered the biggest, most intense rivalry in all of college basketball. Enjoy the game 'Cat fans, as our collective memory banks prepare to make room for yet another Commonwealth civil war.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats beat the Cards!