Ls ALL THE WAY 🆙 Great team win fellas! Enjoy this one LOUISVILLE❗️— Mike Pegues (@CoachPegues) December 26, 2020
Louisville outlasted in-state rival Kentucky in a closely-contested Battle of the Bluegrass on Saturday 62-59 pushing the Wildcats to 1-6 overall. It's Kentucky's worst start to a season since the 1926-1927 season, and its six-game skid marks the longest losing streak as a program since the 1988-1989 season.
With the Cardinals leading 60-59 and less than 10 seconds left to play, Kentucky big man Olivier Sarr's potential go-ahead jumper that could have avoided catastrophe touched every bit of the rim, but failed to fall. Then, after Carlik Jones hit two free throws to give UL a 62-59 lead, Brandon Boston's 3-pointer with time expiring that would have sent the game to overtime clanked off the back of the rim, giving the Cardinals (6-1) the victory.
The win for Louisville snaps a three-game skid against its cross-state rival, which last won in the series in 2016. It's also a feather in the cap for third-year coach Chris Mack, whose personal record against the Wildcats was 0-2 since his arrival in 2018.
"Losing stinks. Just stinks," Kentucky's John Calipari said. "We've got to right the ship at some point, then we've got to start rolling over -- like rolling over people. But right now we've just got to try to steal one, win one, dominate somebody and then start moving on."
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Kentucky's stars are struggling
Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke -- the two top-rated incoming freshmen of Kentucky's No. 1-ranked recruiting class -- combined for 3-of-15 shooting in the loss. Boston accounted for all the made buckets, while Clarke, hobbled with an ankle injury, played 16 minutes and recorded no other statistic but a turnover. Meanwhile, graduate transfer Olivier Sarr, who nearly drained the game-winner, was held without a field goal against the Cardinals -- the second consecutive game he's been held without a field goal. It's a rare instance where even the projected preseason stars are struggling.
"Probably they felt that [they thought they were stars] too," Calipari said after he was asked about why the top talents are struggling to perform. "Now all of a sudden, you get punched in the mouth, you start tasting blood, how do you react?"
Calipari after the game pegged Clarke's health at around 80%.
The SEC opener a week from now likely won't be enough time to get him to 100%, but it could perhaps allow Boston and Sarr, the team's top scorer and most experienced interior presence, respectively, much-needed time to reenergize and reset.
Louisville came ready to play
Whereas Kentucky's top options withered in a big spot, Louisville's shined. Leading scorer Carlik Jones led the way, scoring 20 points and adding five rebounds and two assists in the win. David Johnson added 17 points and made three 3-pointers, as well as seven boards and four assists. Kentucky's frontcourt did well on the glass and limited second-chance points for the Cards, but Louisville's counter was shooting 22-of-52 from the field, 6-of-20 from 3-point range and capitalizing on easy opportunities when they presented themselves. It was nearly a disaster late -- Louisville's late-game execution left something to be desired -- but the benefit of playing with a lead is that you've built a cushion to protect against errors.
"I thought our guard play, with Carlik and David, despite making a few too many mistakes with turnovers, they set the table for our team," Louisville coach Chris Mack said. "As guys learn to play off them a little bit better, and they play better, I think we'll continue to grow as a team."
Wildcats backs are against the wall
At 1-6 overall, Kentucky is in territory it is unfamiliar with. And now its backs are against the wall. No team that has started 1-6 in a season has gone on to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, as ESPN noted. That doesn't mean the season is over -- Kentucky has yet to open league play -- but getting into the Big Dance may require an incredible (and somewhat unlikely) turnaround or making a run in the SEC Tournament to clinch the automatic bid. The Cats haven't missed the tourney since 2013.