LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY (TICKER) —After Rick Pitino sent a message to the fans, his current team did the same to his former one.
Marvin Stone scored 16 points in an emotional reunion as Louisville defeated 14th-ranked Kentucky, 81-63, before a raucous crowd of 20,061 at Freedom Hall.
Freedom is what Stone felt after transferring from Kentucky last year. The 6-10 forward had been dismissed by coach Tubby Smith for disciplinary reasons in late December before turning to Pitino in a controversial move.
Pitino coached the Wildcats to a national title during an eight-year stint before leaving for the NBA in 1997. He returned to the college game last season and lost his first meeting with Kentucky, 82-62, in Lexington.
This time around, Pitino had the crowd on his side. He helped them along with a pregame message that was displayed on the scoreboard, emphasizing the importance of the Freedom Hall fans as a sixth man.
It worked. The crowd helped the Cardinals (7-1) rally from a double-digit deficit in the first half before urging them along during a dominant final 20 minutes.
Freshman Francisco Garcia added 12 points and three other players scored in double figures for Louisville, which outscored Kentucky 51-30 in the second half and improved to 6-0 at home.
After the final horn, the crowd stormed the court.
“I normally don’t care until the end, but I think our guys deserve it,” Pitino said. “We’ll embrace this win for a short period because we have Ohio State next week. But this is a big win for us.”
Ellis Myles chipped in 11 points and Reece Gaines and freshman Taquan Dean added 10 apiece for the Cardinals, who shot 10-of-21 from 3-point range and 23-of-28 from the free-throw line.
Keith Bogans scored 14 points for the Wildcats (5-3), who had won three straight in the series. Smith fell to 1-6 lifetime against teams coached by Pitino.
“It’s a tough loss for us,” Smith said. “We’re a third of the way through the season, so we have a lot of games left. A big game like that takes the wind out of you. We just need to regroup and get our confidence back.”
The Wildcats dominated the early going, grabbing 15 of the game’s first 16 rebounds and building a 20-9 lead midway through the first half before settling for a 33-30 edge at intermission.
“We did a good on the boards and were aggressive in the first half,” said Smith, whose team shot just 37 percent (23-of-62). “I am disappointed with our effort in the second half. … They were more energized coming out of the locker room than we were.”
Lexington native Erik Brown hit a 3-pointer with 17:03 remaining to trigger a 22-7 run that made it 55-42 with 12:41 to play. Typical of a team coached by Pitino, the Cardinals used pressure defense to take control.
“I thought they did a good job of pressing and speeding up the game,” Smith said. “They were able to control the tempo of the game. I thought they did a good job in making us play faster and take quick shots.”
Stone had five points during the key burst, three from the free-throw line. He went 8-of-12 from the line and 4-of-7 from the field while grabbing seven rebounds and blocking a pair of shots.
“Marvin did a great job,” Smith said. “I thought we did a good job against him in the first half. He did a good job getting into position to get to the free-throw line. We couldn’t seem to keep the ball from getting to him.”
The Wildcats missed nine of their first 10 shots to start the second half and found themselves trailing, 47-37, with 14 minutes left. They went more than five minutes without a basket in the second half and trailed by at least 17 points over the final five minutes.
“When a team catches fire like that and gets the momentum, like Pitino’s teams can do, it’s tough to stop,” Smith said. “When they started making the threes, we needed to get out there and defend it. Then they were able to get on the boards and get two and three chances.”
Chuck Hayes scored 11 points for the Wildcats, who went 3-of-18 from 3-point range.
Gaines, Louisville’s leading scorer, hit his first basket with 10:18 to play, making it 60-47 with a 3-pointer. The Cardinals made five of their first seven 3-point attempts in the second half, which helped their press.
“We didn’t execute our offense in the first half,” Pitino said. “When you shoot a good percentage, you get your press on. When you don’t shoot the ball well, you don’t get your press on.”