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Pitino shows class, appreciation after hard loss to Kentucky

by | CBSSports.com Senior College Basketball Blogger
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NEW ORLEANS -- That was Kentucky vs. Louisville. All of it. Every possession iteration and mood swing that transpired in Saturday night's national semifinal was this rivalry, defined.

A little underwhelmed? If you are, then it just goes to show how Kentucky vs. Louisville remains a war in that state that most inside of it understand, while few beyond the flat and squiggly lines of the Bluegrass border fall short of appreciating. These two don't always provide classic games. Each result is just ammo for one side and gaping flesh wounds for the other.

If you could embody, mold, depict the history and identity of the programs' century-long clash and put them into one basketball game, you'd get Kentucky 69, Louisville 61. The game was workmanlike, never too flashy, nary a grudge on the floor and always Kentucky's to decide. In finality, it was simply how it's been more times than not in 45 meetings on the court and countless recruiting battles off it: Wildcats win, Cardinals lose. The biggest game in the history of basketball's nastiest bout never got boring; it remained predictably emphatic. This was Kentucky's night.

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The patterns of Wildcat win/Louisville loss mimic the grooves in the ever-curling arc of the two teams' tete-a-tete. Louisville trailed early, chased back. Then it reeled closer once more, late in the first half. A few times in the second half the game got close -- even tied -- before Kentucky pulled away again, showing it had the superior team, the latest and loudest reminder it has the superior program. Tonight and for a hundred years before this, Louisville: always there, never far behind, but never threatening to usurp UK. A game ended tonight; an intra-state college basketball narrative continued without interruption.

The man in the middle of this, Rick Pitino, gets a perspective no one else has and probably ever will: once the coach of Kentucky, now the coach of Louisville. "Their six are as good as our ['96 Kentucky's] six" Pitino said. He's been one of the most fierce, most respected coaches in college basketball for 25 years. His No. 1-rated defense did well for most of the night. Pitino's Cardinals had to play like "starving dogs on the glass" to have a chance. Still, his team didn't have much of a chance going into the game; it's a testament to his preparation and savvy that the Cardinals couldn't be run off by a team that seems destined to be remembered as one of college basketball's 20 best.

"I haven't always liked some of the Kentucky teams, I'm not going to lie to you, but I liked this one," Pitino said. "I'll be rooting for them hard to bring a trophy back to Kentucky Monday night. Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky."

Afterward, Pitino showed more of that grace, class and appreciation. He had more compliments than his team had answers in the previous two hours. Pitino was ready to share endless praise of Anthony Davis, stating the obvious, that Davis was the game's (not just this game's, but college basketball's) best player and unlike anyone he's seen. Pitino called Kidd-Gilchrist "one of his favorite players." He recognized the value of Darius Miller, the lone impact senior, to Kentucky's chances to win.

You couldn't blame Pitino, 59, if he wanted to be angry. If losing to John Calipari disgusted him into a fit or stalled him into disinterest afterward. Instead, he was a realist. He was immediately thankful and reflective of an unpredictable season. His team worked hard, defended like hell -- but even he knew they were a bit lucky to be here. There was no anger in his voice, even though his team missed 16 dunks and layups on the way to relenting to UK. That question comparing his '96 team to this one, with Calipari? Pitino cracked a joke before responding. Pitino won his only title with that '96 Kentucky squad. If you thought this loss against a coach and fan base that hates him for being a traitor, that he would be hard on himself and his team, then you're wrong. Guys live and die with this game. Seriously -- coaching kills men too early, sometimes. Pitino's perspective has clearly shifted.

"When you go home with a bronze medal around your neck, it's not disappointing," Pitino said. "I told the guys, 'Look, I'm going to Miami tomorrow and I'm celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around injuries and everything else. If you guys don't celebrate and have good, clean fun, you're fools.'" Comparing his team's accomplishment to the Olympics is appropriate. Getting to six Final Fours in 25 years is practically a once-every-four-year chance. Does he ever get this chance again? If not, he's at peace. Pitino's legacy has largely been written. There are still things waiting to be added, like the ludicrous exclusion from the Basketball Hall of Fame (his latest denial came over the weekend from voters), and maybe even another Final Four run or two (he'll have a top-five team next season when the preseason polls come out). But is it possible at this stage in his career Pitino's turning toward the kinder side for good? Almost completely, yes. For those looking for a little bit of ammo, yes, Pitino did offer up one jab at Calipari. Equal parts praise and put-down.

"I marvel at what John does -- I couldn't do it," he said of the one-and-done culture at Kentucky. "I can't say hello and goodbye in seven months." He can live with this, though.

When it was over on the court, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb embraced. The relief on their faces was beaming. Then Lamb, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague in an exhaustive hug on the court just the handshake lines were finishing. Kentucky fans flaked their foamy seat cushions from the Superdome's highest rafters into the bowl below. When it was over on the sideline, as the aforementioned Wildcats were composing themselves into graceful victory, Pitino took three seconds in the handshake line and returned a hope that Calipari had given to him 16 years ago, when Pitino and Kentucky beat Calipari and UMass in the national semifinal, 81-74. Calipari wished Pitino well and his first national title.

Pitino understands the chase and the pressure and the preciousness of that. Now, with the roles reversed, he's offered luck and prosperity to Calipari. He may not like the man, but that doesn't mean he can't see a lot of him in the Kentucky coach.

"I just said, John, I'll be pulling for you," Pitino said. "Bring the trophy back home to Kentucky. Really impressed with what he's done. Love to see Kentucky bring it home."

The rivalry, same as it ever was, except for the man in the middle who now cherishes what he's got and how he's made this clash the best in college basketball.

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