Kentucky vs. Louisville is always special. Since 1983 the two teams have battled, sometimes fought, but always competed for the title “Best in the Bluegrass.”
We’ve witnessed upsets, blowouts and last-second heroics on both sides of the red-hot rivalry. Kentucky fans have enjoyed the bragging rights which accompany victory, and had to endure all that losing implies. It’s been a full service rivalry, composed of two of college basketball’s elite level programs and is just one more reason the Commonwealth reigns as the Mecca of college basketball.
While all of the contests we’ve witnessed have been securely stored in our memory banks, some UK-U of L games stand out. Whether it is the margin of victory or the importance of the victory, my favorite memories of the series are diverse. With one exception, UK has come out victorious in all. I know, that’s a shocker.
As the Big Blue Nation prepares to take on the Cardinals for the 43rd time – what the heck, a trip down memory lane never hurt anybody — here are my favorite Kentucky vs. Louisville games, listed in chronological order.
Ending the nightmare
Nov. 26, 1983 at Rupp Arena: No. 2 UK vs. No. 6 Louisville
Exactly eight months earlier, on March 26, the Cardinals won the initial Dream Game in the NCAA Mideast Regional Final played in Knoxville, Tenn., by a count of 80-68 in overtime. That historic game represented the first matchup of the two college basketball superpowers since 1959. After the Kentucky state legislature threatened to force the two teams to compete on the court, the powers-that-be at the two universities reached an agreement to play a four year home-and-home series, with the first game being played at Rupp Arena in November of ’83.
Never have I wanted Kentucky to win a game so badly. No, I didn’t want Kentucky to win, I NEEDED the Cats to come out on top. My sanity depended on it. I, after all, lived in Louisville, and when Louisville beat UK in March, Jefferson County became a rather unpleasant locale for Wildcat fans. This game, the season- opener for both teams, simply had to silent the Cardinal chirping, and restore the natural order of things.
Thankfully, the Cats didn’t disappoint. From the beginning of the game UK was in control, pressuring U of L guards Milt Wagner and Lancaster Gordon, one of the best backcourts in U of L history, into missing 15-of-21 shots, resulting in the two scoring only 12 combined points — This after the duo torched the Cats, scoring 42 points in Louisville’s March win.
Asked how the Cats won, Wagner responded, “Great defense. They keyed on Lancaster and me more this game, and they made us force a lot of shots, go up off balance. They just outplayed us.”
Up 35-20 at halftime, the Cats kept the defensive tenacity going in the second half. There simply would be no defensive mercy shown, and behind three double-digit scorers, Jim Master (19 points), Melvin Turpin (16 points), Kenny Walker (13 points), and the rebounding and defensive presence of Sam Bowie, who had 10 rebounds and five blocks, the Wildcats righted the ship and bounced the Cards back to Louisville 65-44 losers.
The Cardinals shot 35.6 percent for the game and Kentucky’s tenacious D forced 20 turnovers in giving Denny Crum his second largest margin of defeat. Rupp Arena resoundingly approved.
Suited to be a Cardinal, destined to be a Cat
Dec. 27, 1986 at Freedom Hall: No. 18 Kentucky vs. Louisville
Rex Chapman, out of Owensboro Apollo High School, seemed destined to attend Louisville. Chapman was an uber-athlete, with the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. In possession of a powerful 40-plus inch vertical leap, and with a penchant for knocking down jumpers from all over the court, Chapman fit Denny Crum’s style of play to a “T.” But the allure of Lexington, and playing for Big Blue, was simply too much for Chapman to resist.
In his seventh game as a Cat, against the University of Louisville, Chapman became King. Setting the tone early, Kentucky dropped three trey bombs on the Cards in the opening minutes, with Chapman making one from 23 feet. UK continued to barrage U of L with 3-pointers, dialing long distance seven times in the first half on its way to a 38-28 first-half lead.
Chapman and the rest of the Cats continued their aerial assault in the second frame, going on a 22-4 run to begin the half, effectively putting the game out of reach. Knocking down treys and dunking his way into the hearts of UK fans, Chapman led Kentucky to a 60-32 lead with 11:30 remaining. Freedom Hall was a ghost town.
“Coach (Eddie) Sutton said the main thing was to keep the crowd out of the game,” UK center Rob Lock said after the contest. ”Louisville’s a high-flying team. If they got running, we’d be in trouble.”
As it turns out, it was Louisville who was in trouble. As the final horn mercifully sounded, the Wildcats found themselves with an 85-51 win, and the Commonwealth with a new basketball hero, as Chapman poured in 26 points, making half of his 20 shots and 5 of 8 from long-range. Ed Davender chipped in with 16 points and eight rebounds, while James Blackmon was perfect from beyond the arc while scoring 11 points.
The Cats sizzled from outside, making 11-of-17 trey tries and shooting 54.2 percent from the floor. U of L, on the other hand, never solved Sutton’s mind-numbing man-to-man defense and shot only 36.2 percent for the game. Louisville center Felton Spencer and guard Tony Kimbro led the Cards with 10 points apiece as U of L countered UK’s 3-point barrage with only one made trey (out of eight attempts), that by current UK assistant Kenny Payne.
The 34-point Wildcat victory was Louisville’s worst loss since 1956. And it was led by a man, Rex Chapman, most suited to be a Cardinal, but destined to be a Cat.
Dec. 29, 2001 at Rupp Arena: No. 6 Kentucky vs. (UR) Louisville
All Kentucky fans appreciate what Rick Pitino did in his time at UK. Bringing the Cats back from the brink of extinction, seemingly in the blink of an eye, Pitino re-established the Kentucky brand, bringing national prominence and Final Four appearances back to the Bluegrass after the scourge of NCAA violations.
Upon Pitino’s departure from Kentucky in 1997 for the Boston Celtics, most UK fans reacted with disappointment but also a sense of understanding. But, after his second NBA stint ended in 2001, Pitino choosing to return to the college game by coaching Louisville sent many UK fans over the edge. The Big Blue Nation did not like it one bit, with some Wildcat fans pointing to Pitino as a modern day Benedict Arnold.
Pitino’s return to Rupp Arena, as anticipated as any game in recent UK memory, was a chance for the Cats to set things right. It was the BBN’s chance at payback, and Kentucky did not disappoint, stamping paid in full all over Cawood’s Court.
But it took a half.
Although UK had a size advantage in the paint, the Cats settled for 3-point shots in the first half, taking 16 from beyond the arc. UK’s inaccuracy, resulting from rushed shots, left the Cats with only a 36-32 halftime advantage. The second half, though, saw Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans take charge and lead to the Cats to victory.
Prince and Bogans combined to score 17 of UK’s first 18 second-half points, and with UK up 38-37, the Wildcats scored 12 straight points to take a 50-37 lead with 15 minutes remaining. The Rupp crowd was delirious, the Cardinals ready to fold.
It was a second-half Big Blue beat-down, with Louisville making only 20.7 percent of its shots (6-of-29) countered by the Cats torching the nets with 51.4 percent shooting. Of UK’s second-half baskets, only three came from outside the paint.
“They thought they were going to come in here and Rick Pitino was going to send them to the promise land,” a jubilant Cliff Hawkins said after the game. “It don’t work like that.”
Prince led four Wildcats in double-figure scoring with 18 points – the lanky forward added nine rebounds and three assists with only one turnover — with Bogans chipping in with 17 points and seven boards. Gerald Fitch and Marquis Estill helped the Wildcat scoring cause with 10 points apiece.
Louisville, smothered on offense, shot only 36.2 percent from the field and made the westward trek down I-64 back to Louisville 82-62 losers.
There are other UK vs. U of L games which stand out in mind: Patrick Sparks connecting on three free throws with six-tenths of a second on the clock, giving Kentucky a 60-58 win after being down 16 points in December of 2004; Cedric Jenkins’ tip-in, his only basket of the game, which gave the Wildcats a 76-75 victory in December of 1987; and UK’s 72-67 win in the Mideast Regional Semifinal in March of 1984.
My favorite three games, though, those which have become legendary in my mind, will always bring a smile to my face and satisfaction to my mind. But win or lose, Kentucky vs. Louisville is always special.
What are your favorite games? Let us know in the comments section below.