LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—One game after its worst performance of the season, Kentucky put together its best.
Rajon Rondo scored 25 points, setting a career high for the fourth time this season, and the 23rd-ranked Wildcats rebounded from their most lopsided loss in 16 years to beat No. 4 Louisville 73-61 on Saturday.
Kentucky, which was in danger of dropping out of the Top 25 after a run of 87 straight poll appearances, beat its archrival in consecutive years for the first time since winning three straight over the Cardinals from 2000 to 2002.
“I know everyone in the United States, and especially in this state, talks about this game,” Kentucky center Lukasz Obrzut said. “It’s the most important game of the year.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino—who restored Kentucky basketball to glory in the 1990s as the Wildcats’ coach—has a 34-3 record in December games during his five seasons with Louisville. All three losses have come to Kentucky. Pitino is 1-2 at Rupp Arena as the Cardinals’ coach.
The win—before 24,432 fans, the second-largest crowd in the 30-year history of Rupp Arena—was the 350th of Kentucky coach Tubby Smith’s career. He is one of seven coaches to have reached 350 wins in 15 seasons or less. His career record is 350-123 in 15 seasons at Tulsa, Georgia and Kentucky.
Kentucky (7-3) had lost two of its previous three games, including a 26-point defeat against Indiana on Dec. 10. Smith juggled his starting lineup, inserting guard Joe Crawford, forward Sheray Thomas and Obrzut, and the move paid immediate dividends.
Kentucky wasted little time asserting its dominance against the Cardinals (6-1), never trailing and jumping to a double-digit lead in the first 7 minutes.
“We got off to a great start and played very energized,” Smith said.
Louisville’s starting center, David Padgett, picked up two fouls in the first 88 seconds and sat on the bench the rest of the half, taking away a potential inside advantage for the Cardinals. Padgett didn’t take his first shot until almost 6 minutes into the second half and his 12 points came as Louisville tried in vain to rally.
Meanwhile, Obrzut—one of Kentucky’s much-maligned 7-footers—grabbed a career-high nine rebounds and had two of the Wildcats’ six blocked shots.
“We had to start playing defense,” said Obrzut, who had two blocks. “We had to recognize that. Kentucky is defense.”
Louisville, playing away from home for the first time this season, made one of its first 14 shots while Kentucky jumped to a 13-3 lead. The poor shooting proved to be a trend, not an aberration—the Cardinals finished 21-of-60 from the field (35 percent).
“We did what young teams do,” said Pitino, who has seven newcomers on his roster. “We panicked and we shot quickly and we took bad shots, and then it mushrooms and goes the other way.
“We did as bad a job as we did all year in running our offense.”
Taquan Dean had 14 points and six assists for Louisville, but was 5-for-16 from the field.
After the initial Kentucky burst, the Cardinals scored 10 of the next 14 points to close that gap to 17-13. Then Rondo took over for Kentucky.
The sophomore point guard made a 3-pointer, converted a three-point play, then assisted on a dunk by 7-foot-3 center Shagari Alleyne, extending Kentucky’s lead to 25-13.
“He did a good job of taking what they gave him,” Smith said of Rondo, who had seven assists. “He really played under control and was poised out there. Lately, he has felt like he has had to do a lot.”
After two Louisville baskets, it was Thomas’ turn. The junior forward, who finished with a career-high 11 points, scored on a tip-in, a 3-pointer and two free throws during a 10-2 run that put Kentucky up 35-19. The Wildcats led 39-24 at halftime.
The Kentucky lead was 45-27 when Louisville’s Andre McGee was called for a charging foul against Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks. The call incensed Pitino, who received a technical foul for his vehement protest.
“I deserved a `T’,” Pitino said. “I was trying to get our guys (motivated). It was a good call.”
But it didn’t seem to energize the Cardinals, who found themselves down by 23 points after a basket by Crawford with 13:42 left. Louisville came no closer than 11 points the rest of the way.
“They came out and outplayed us in every area of the game,” Padgett said. “They were just the better basketball team today and any time that happens it’s not going to leave a good taste in your mouth after the game.”