How do you spell relief? "Victory."
This has to be the strangest Kentucky Wildcats -- Louisville Cardinals experience of my life. The very strangest. On every other night, or afternoon, that this game takes place, I am jumping for joy at any kind of Kentucky victory. I am pulling out the Four Roses Single Barrel for a happy gamecap, savoring every second of a sweet victory.
O Victory, where is thy joy?
Never in my life have I walked away from a basketball game feeling as if I had just run a marathon ... until last night. The facade of serenity I had carefully cultivated among my fellow fan bloggers here in NOLA, assuring them that I could handle defeat as well as victory, came crashing down when the ball went up in the air. For the first time in many years, I was a terrible fan, oblivious to those around me and intense to the point of madness. Oh, I politely clapped at the announcement of the Cardinal starting five, I applauded coach Pitino, and I was respectful of the Louisville fans. But inside, I was a seething cauldron of emotion, and had a virtual Category 5 wreaking havoc in my soul.
The 7-point Kentucky lead at halftime somehow felt like a 2-point deficit. Louisville made several runs at Kentucky's lead in the first half that came within inches of success, and the turnovers, plus the fouls on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, had me fearing for a comeback in the early second half. Little did I know how justified my fears would be.
When Chris Smith nailed a three early in the second half, my fears began to swell into deep concern. Kentucky was not playing particularly well. MKG missed an easy layup, the Dome Effect seemed to be in full bloom, at least for Kentucky -- perimeter shots would go in and come out, free throws clanged, badness was looming.
My nightmares were fully realized when the Cardinals tied the score at 49. It was at that point that my decorum, so carefully maintained at great emotional cost earlier, broke down. My wife whispered a language warning in my ear (I have no idea what I said, I just hope it wasn't too awful) and the world went sideways. That stretch of the game is a kind of blank, or rather, a blur. An emphatic dunk by MKG on a wild, spinning move returned me from Occupy Hell, and back into the game.
The rest of the game was a tense affair that featured less and less cheering from the Louisville fans around me, and slowly I began to realize that this game was looking better. Darius Miller's 3 from the right wing brought me to the gates of delirium, leaping from my seat with both arms over my head in rapture. Could it be?
But the game was not quite done. As Kentucky hung on doggedly to an 8 or 9-point lead, Louisville elevated their defensive pressure to ridiculous levels, and began a furious assault on the offensive glass. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for Kentucky), the Cardinals simply could not put the ball in the basket, thanks in equal part to Kentucky's stifling defense and Louisville's continued poor shooting from the field.
And then it was over, and frankly, I was near collapse. The emotional toll had completely stolen away any joy, and all I could muster was a sense of overwhelming relief. Petra was very much the same way, and the UK fans around the arena, of which there are many tens of thousands, were decidedly subdued. Yes, there was happiness, but no raucousness, even from many of the younger fans. It's as if we all just stared into the deep, black, soulless eyes of the abyss and saw our own reflection in bas-relief.
There was no celebration for us. After an exciting, if poorly played, game between the Kansas Jayhawks and Ohio St. Buckeyes, we stumbled back to our room to collapse from fatigue, more emotional than physical. We slept through most of the breakfast this morning, but we have recovered our strength and look forward to a less hectic day before the Finals tomorrow.
This was the game without joy, but the season has been one of ecstasy. Now that this game is in the rear-view, I am looking forward to the NCAA Tournament Finals with another of college basketball's great bluebloods, the Kansas Jayhawks. I think Petra and I have both moved back into the correct mindset for college basketball, and instead of a mixture of dread and anticipation, there is nothing but pure, happy anticipation in me.
As it should be.
Editor's note: Apologies for the lack of a pregame yesterday. I typed a 2000-word game preview which I scheduled for 2:00 PM ... today. Oops.