My birthday in on January 21st. I received a text from my wife on Friday asking me if a ticket to the Kentucky vs. Louisville in Rupp Arena would be OK as an early birthday present. "Ummm... Hell yes" was my response.
My wife works with a lady that is married to a guy that knows a guy that works for UK. Of course, I was a little skeptical that she would be able to produce a ticket at that late hour to the hottest match up in college basketball. Sure enough, my darling spouse and her connection came through. I traveled from Louisville to Lexington on that Saturday afternoon with a guy that I had met only once before and we had a great time together.
I've had the pleasure of watching the ‘Cats in Rupp Arena only a handful of times. I went a couple of times during the Billy Clyde tenure and once last season. I was at the Yum! Center the last time the Cards and the ‘Cats met. All of these games paled in comparison to what I saw on Saturday.
Here is my experience at the best game I have ever seen at Rupp Arena.
- The first thing I noticed was how jam packed the arena was. There were 24,396 screaming fans there and every one of us was ready to do our part in bringing a victory to the Wildcats.
- The National Anthem was one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of. Dr. Everett McCorvey is the Director of Opera at the University of Kentucky and was the choice to sing our country's anthem. He was all set to sing the Star Spangled Banner and he started off with a deep, booming voice. He stopped about three lines in and the crowd picked up and sang the rest of the song in unison. It was haunting, beautiful and totally unique. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and the stage was set for this epic showdown. My companion turned to me and said, "That right there was worth the price of admission.'
- There weren't many Louisville fans in the crowd. Maybe a couple hundred. Many may have been at the bowl game in Orlando, maybe not. I didn't see any fighting or rudeness toward Cardinal fans in the arena, around the concession stands, or anywhere in the building. Everybody was cordial. If anything happened, and I doubt it did, I didn't see it.
- There was a video that was played before the introductions that included some of the best moments of the rivalry. The highlights included Rex Champman's dunk, Patrick Sparks' three point foul, Derek Anderson's poster slam, an Anthony Davis lob, and The Unforgettables, just to name a few. Here is that vdeo in all of its glory:
- The Cardinal introductions were met with the expected boos and jeers from the crowd with the loudest boos reserved for Rick Pitino. I was seated behind the benches, so I had a good look at both coaches throughout the game (more on that in a bit), and to Pitino's credit, he greeted the boos with a smile for his team as they huddled around him. That would be the last time I saw him smile for the rest of the night.
- The Wildcat intros were as neat as always and the crowd really showed the players some big time love. The players looked focused and ready to get on the court.
- The lady seated directly behind me started pounding her fists onto my shoulders during the player intros. I turned to her and gave her a look. She apologized to me and stated that she liked to hit and punch out of excitement and asked me if that was OK. Being the good natured soul that I am, I told her no worries, hit away. I haven't really looked yet, but I am sure I have a few bruises after the barn burner we witnessed.
- The size difference between the two teams was really evident in person. I watched the recorded game on TV when I get home and the small screen does not do the disparity justice. Louisville really is a small team, especially in the back court. And the Harrisons are huge in person.
- After the quick 8-0 Louisville run, the crowd lost a little gas. Kentucky had plenty of chances to score around the rim early but the shots just wouldn't fall. The crowd was disappointed but no discouraged; we would do our part and then some.
- Watching Julius Randle work is a thing of beauty. He is graceful and dominant at the same time. No matter which player Louisville threw at him, Montrezl Harrell, Chane Behanan, Mangok Mathiang, Akoy Agau, Luke Hancock, or Wayne Blackshear, he made them all look like lesser players. Watching him shake Luke Hancock and go in for a two handed slam was particularly amusing to watch.
- Speaking of Hancock, every time he was wide open at the three the crowd collectively gasped. We know what kind of shooter he can be; luckily he wasn't that shooter on Saturday.
- BBN loves Dominique Hawkins. He was greeted with a chorus of loud cheers every time he checked into the game and every time he went back to the bench. One of the loudest cheers of the game errupted when he fought off two Louisville defenders for an offensive rebound in the first half. That kid is going to be special and his senior day will be one to remember. He is going to be great.
- The support that Andrew Harrison received from the crowd was great. We all collectively wanted so badly for him to prove himself, and prove himself he did. All game long I heard, "Go Andrew!" and "Wow, he's playing great!" I'd like to think the Kentucky point guard fed off of the good vibes from the faithful.
- Just about every score was greeted with high-fives, fist pumps and hugs. I'm not really into community bonding, but this was something special.
- In contrast, every missed free throw, every Louisville score and every boneheaded turnover was greeted with a groan.
- I have to address the foul situation at this juncture of the post. Louisville was whistled for 25 fouls while Kentucky was whistled for 19, which is not a huge disparity. There were questionable calls that went both ways; but the fact is that Kentucky is bigger, stronger and more athletic than Louisville,therefore the Wildcats were fouled more. Both teams ended the second half well into the double bonus, and Willie Cauley-Stein was whistled for three straight questionable fouls with about three minutes left in the game. He had one foul collectively until that point. And actually, I thought the refs let them play for the most part. So the whole argument about the refs giving the game to Kentucky needs to stop. It's juvenile.
- The crummy thing about being at a live event is that you can't get any breaking information. Cell phone service stinks and the internet is really, really slow. So, as you can imagine, we all were wondering what the heck was going on with Julius Randle. Was it his ACL? An ankle? His groin? Something worse? Eventually we figured out that it was cramps and we all sighed in relief.
- Like I said before, I was seated behind the benches, so I was able to see the coaches quite clearly. Calipari was his usual self, working the refs, coaching up his players, and exhibited a bevy of outlandish body language. He was really into the game and did a masterful job coaching his players. This may have been his finest job as the head coach of the Wildcats.
- Rick Pitino was almost the complete opposite. He spent much of the game pacing the sidelines with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the floor or sitting on the bench. He didn't even gripe at his players as much as he usually does. I'm not sure if I witnessed a newer, calmer Rick or if he was just resigned to the fact that Kentucky was just a better team. He wasn't as animated as he normally is during a game.
- The loudest point of the game was after the beautiful Andrew Harrison pass to Alex Poythress for the dunk that put the ‘Cats up by 10 late in the second half. Poythress screamed and so did we. I thought the roof was going to blow off. I actually uttered some rather profane words that would make you blush. It was awesome.
- When the final buzzer sounded, the crowd was jubilant. We again hugged and high fived each other and joined in singing My Old Kentucky Home.
- My day wasn't over. My friend called his buddy and we went down to meet him on the floor. He took us back to where the press was interviewing the players. As I came around the corner, John Calipari almost ran right into me on his way to do the postgame show with Tom Leach. He looked at me and I stuck out my hand like a doofus. He shook it and I said, "Great game coach and thank you". What was I thanking him for? I'm not sure. Maybe I was thanking him for beating Louisville. Maybe I was thanking him for the national title. Maybe I was thanking him for just being so damn awesome. Coach looked right back at me and said, "No, thank you. And thanks for coming out." Yeah, Cal's the man.
I've been to bowl games, a game at Notre Dame Stadium, games at Freedom Hall, games at Papa John's Stadium, a game at the Yum! Center, and a few games at Rupp; but this one contest against the Cardinals trumps everything that I've seen.
A couple of factors are attributed to this: we always want to beat Louisville in every sport; the crowd was hungry for a quality win against a top 25 team; we desperately want this team to realize the potential that we all see in them; and we were sick and tired of hearing about the Year of the Cardinal. It was time for the Wildcats to be back on top. And now they are in a big, big way.
This victory sets a course for a trajectory that could propel the ‘Cats into March. Andrew grew up and the team realized that they don't have to rely on one guy, no matter how special he is; they all have a role to play and they are defining those roles. We have seen glimpses of this, and we finally saw the semblance of a finished product against the Cardinals.
Calipari has a week and a half to build on the positivity and to continue to mold the confidence of his young team before Mississippi State kicks off conference play in Lexington.
I have a feeling that the SEC is going to be a fun ride. I only hope that the home crowd can be as electric as it was against the Cardinals. And I wish I could be there for every one of those games.