On Sunday, I made my last stop in Indiana staying in Jeffersonville, literally on the banks of the Ohio River. Rather than deal with city parking, I walked the approximately mile long Second Avenue Bridge into Louisville, landing me in Kentucky next to the Yum Center.
If I got my merit badge for bridge walking (a bit risky here as portions of the sidewalks were closed), we need to give one to Kentucky Head Coach Matthew Mitchell for making it four in a row against the in-state rival Louisville Cardinals.
The KFC Yum! Center crowd was loud (14,862 announced with capacity of 22.000) and looked a sea of Louisville cardinal red with 10% to perhaps 15% Kentucky blue. In spite of having two major division one schools in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the vast majority of bleeds blue. Thus it surprised me that Louisville so dominated this crowd with the schools less than 90 minutes’ drive apart.
As happened the prior day in South Bend, the home team got off to a fast start, here controlling the action into the second half.
"We got out-hustled. Louisville had more energy. We did not get back in transition," commented Coach Mitchell post-game referring to his team's seeming lack of focus in the opening stanza.
The evidence proves the Kentucky coach correct in that his team turned the ball over five times in the first four minutes of the first half. While the home side made four similar errors during that time frame, it appeared the Wildcat miscues were more damaging with the Cardinals up modestly nine to six at the 15:00 mark. The lead reached double digits (27-16) at the 9:11 mark on a layup by Louisville freshman Mariya Moore and grew to 16 (32-16) on foul shots by Sara Hammond at the 6:44 mark.
Louisville was killing Kentucky in the paint (26 to 8 in the half) as the home side was getting to the rim. Granted, the Wildcats were able to win the points off turnovers battle (13-7) thanks to some live ball miscues in the latter portion of the half. One could subtly feel a momentum shift in that the lead was now shrinking but still at 13 (42-29) at the break.
The Cardinals were not getting as easy a look as they did earlier in the half which saw Louisville shoot 51.7% (15/29) from the field to Kentucky's 36.4% (12/33). Bad foul shooting added to the visitors' woes (4/11 for 36.4%). Meanwhile, the hosts tallied 12/16 (a crisp 75%) from the charity stripe.
"They came out focused in the second half like we did in the first," was the analysis of Cardinal Mariya Moore post-game.
Coach Mitchell put it in more colorful terms in describing what he saw in the second half and would have liked to have seen in the first half: "We have to play like our hair is on fire all the time." In the second half the Wildcats did.
To the casual observer, Louisville was still in charge over the first four minutes of the second half with the lead still at nine (49-40) at the 16:03 point after a three point play by Kentucky point guard Janee Thompson.
One ominous point that was becoming apparent was that Louisville senior point guard Jude Schimmel (yes, Shoni's younger sister for WNBA fans) was struggling to hold on to the ball versus the Wildcats' full court man to man defense. Every other Cardinal starter at some point in this game took a crack at bringing the ball up. Several times these "emergency" ball handlers directly turned the ball over. Over the next 16 minutes, Louisville would turn the ball over thirteen times to Kentucky's seven.
Post-game Louisville Coach Jeff Walz indicated that he pled with his team, "If you are going to make a turnover, make it a dead ball turnover [one that does not directly result in a run out fast break basket]. We allowed one mistake to turn into two."
The Cardinals lead hung just over 10 points until the 12:31 mark when Janee Thompson produced another three point play off a steal bringing the lead to eight (53-45).
Another problem rearing its head for the hosts was stopping dribble penetration, particularly over the last seven minutes. The Wildcats were playing small ball going with three or four guards much of the time. Kentucky was gaining more than they were losing at the other end for being small.
Although they led briefly earlier, Kentucky only took the lead (68-66) for good at the 2:33 mark on a pair of Jennifer O'Neill foul shots. After that, the team in blue closed the game on a nine to two run as the host Cardinals sort of panicked with Jude Schimmel surprisingly (not known as a strong penetrator in the quarter court) driving the key twice in the last 90 seconds. Both times she got a good look but neither fell. Each time Kentucky responded with points. From a 66-63 lead with under three and a half minutes to go, Louisville trailed 77-68 at the final buzzer.
Walz lamented "you hate to lose a game given how we played [well] for 30 minutes. Our lack of depth showed."
Mitchell praised his team for an 8-1 start with five BCS opponents to date. "We haven't had an easy road."
Both sides pointed to Kentucky junior guard Janee Thompson as star of the game with game highs 19 points and four steals. Freshman Myisha Hines-Allen led Louisville with 17 points and nine rebounds. In the second half, Kentucky shot 55.6% (15/27, often getting to the rim) from the field to Louisville's 24.1% (7/29). The Cardinals won the battle of the boards 46-34 but got walloped in points off turnovers 27-13.