Man, Kentucky really needs this game. 70-all in OT. Gotta love it. Huge foul shots upcoming for Richards.
A terrific chapter in the storied history of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry closed with a much-needed victory for the 19th-ranked Wildcats on Saturday.
Kentucky (9-3) earned its second notable win of the season by outlasting Louisville in a muscle-clenching 78-70 win over No. 3 Louisville (11-2). The game was so much closer than that score indicates. In fact, this was just the second OT game in the history of the series.
UK freshman Tyrese Maxey (27 points) had his best game since the Wildcats' season-opening win against then-No. 1 Michigan State. Maxey and his teammate, junior Nick Richards (13 points, 10 rebounds), had arguably the best games of their respective careers.
The win bumps Kentucky to 6-0 at home vs. Louisville in the John Calipari era.
Here's a broader view of what Saturday told us about each team and the bigger-picture outlook on the Cats and Cards as we flip the calendar to 2020.
1. In Kentucky's two biggest wins of the season, Tyrese Maxey has averaged 26.5 points. Maxey was not the sole reason Kentucky won -- more on that below -- but it is exceedingly clear and obvious that Kentucky's ceiling rises as high as Maxey's talent allows it to. He's Calipari's only triple threat to score off the bounce, beat you off the catch and keep you off balance with a variety of penetration approaches with the ball in his hands. Against the best teams, he has to be a factor or UK's chances of winning dwindle significantly. Maxey also had seven rebounds and, like many Wildcats, faced foul trouble down the stretch.
2. Nick Richards was the MVP for Kentucky. Richards' stat line of 13 points, 10 boards and one block felt like half of what it should have been. He managed to play more than 35 of the 45 minutes despite dealing with foul issues. Richards came into UK with a five-star rating and a one-and-done expectation. Instead, he's taken the scenic route. His most vital showing as a Wildcat came on Saturday. He made foul shouts, grabbed big rebounds and made key plays in multiple instances in the second half and OT. If he can turn this corner with some tailwind behind him, Kentucky's a different team.
Will also note that Immanuel Quickley kind of quietly had a refreshingly good showing, going for 18 points and doing good work defensively against Jordan Nwora.
3. Louisville had it, lost it, had it again, lost it for good. Blame the foul shooting. Thank goodness this game turned for the better. The first 10-12 minutes were ghastly. And despite a disappearance from Jordan Nwora in the second half, Louisville rallied from a double-digit deficit, took the lead and had a high-percentage chance to win. But the Cards wound up only 9-of-20 from the free-throw line. It's not a poor foul-shooting team (73%), so this was an exception to its normal performance there. Against a rival on the road, though, you give yourself such a better chance if you can hit at least 70% of your freebies. Instead: 45%.
4. Jordan Nwora can't go MIA like this vs. good teams. Nwora had eight points of 2-of-11 shooting. Against Texas Tech in mid-December, he had 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting with four turnovers. Now, it was nice to see Steve Enoch (18 points) and Fresh Kimble (12) provide support. That's a good big-picture outlook. I think Louisville has more than Nwora, and if anything, the narrative it doesn't is getting a bit lazy. Regardless, Nwora's gotta be all-conference level against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. Against UK he was not, and he needs a bit more fire in the belly and bark in his voice, best I can tell. He went nearly 28 minutes of game time without a point and went almost 20 without a field goal attempt. Simply can't happen.
5. Kentucky avoids DEFCON 2 with win. Had UK lost, it would have lost a third straight game and been a country mile from (albeit way premature) NCAA tourney discussion. But this is a boosting win to the dossier. Wins over Michigan State and Louisville are good for the bones and muscle of a resumé. Big Blue Nation can have a calmer New Year's Eve with this one -- yet another win for Kentucky at home against Louisville. As for the Cards, here's an oh-by-the realization: The only win vs. a top-60 KenPom team so far is against Michigan on their home court. But another opportunity awaits next weekend, when Louisville resumes ACC play at home vs. 11-2 Florida State.