LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When the media poured into the Louisville locker room Wednesday night, sports information director Kenny Klein alertly grabbed the object of their attention and ushered him into the center of the room to stand on the Cardinal bird carpet.
A teammate reached over the minicams and microphones to hand Quentin Snider a Santa hat, which he drolly wore throughout his star-of-the-game interview session.
Ho, ho, hometown hero.
After helping deliver a stirring, 73-70 Christmas present to a fan base sick and tired of losing to Kentucky, Snider was reveling in the best night of his basketball life.
“This is No. 1, definitely,” the junior point guard said. “This is the best one ever.”
Snider is a Louisville native and a Cardinal fan from the crib. It’s virtually stamped into his DNA.
So you have an idea how much his 22-point, six-rebound, five-assist masterpiece performance in a streak-busting triumph over the arch-rival Wildcats meant. But that’s only the beginning.
Add another layer of context: Snider very nearly was never a Cardinal, and would’ve never had a chance to play in the all-encompassing rivalry he grew up watching every December. Possessing modest athleticism and a compact wingspan, the 6-foot-2 Snider was indifferently recruited out of Ballard High School – a traditional Louisville feeder program – by Rick Pitino. With Louisville’s interest elsewhere, Snider verbally committed to Illinois. But when five-star prospect JaQuan Lyle decommitted from Louisville for Ohio State, and the Cardinals re-entered the picture, Snider made his own decommitment and signed with his hometown school.
But there’s one more layer of context here: In two previous games against Kentucky, both of them losses, Snider hadn’t even scored a point. He played just a single minute against the Wildcats in 2014; then he had a dismal, 28-minute bagel last year in Rupp Arena. That game was so painful, Snider went home afterward and didn’t leave the house for the next two days.
“Last year’s performance, it kept in my mind all year,” Snider said. “This was pretty much a revenge game. I had it circled.”
Snider got support from an unlikely source after his shutout game last year. Opposing point guard Tyler Ulis, a longtime friend from the AAU circuit, texted him and told him to keep his head up and play more aggressively.
In a boiling cauldron of tension and emotion, Quentin Snider was plenty aggressive Wednesday night. His 19 field-goal attempts were a career high. His 22 points were a career high (and the most by a Louisville native against Kentucky since DeJuan Wheat scored 23 in 1995). His six rebounds tied a career high. He repeatedly made the right decisions with the ball, directing a Louisville offense that exploited a Kentucky defense that has several shortcomings to work on going forward.
“He just kept attacking the rim,” Pitino said. “ ‘Q’ played a big-time game.”
He also did it against a big-time backcourt that has become one of the biggest attractions of this young college basketball season. Kentucky freshmen Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have taken the sport by storm, averaging a combined 38 points, 7.7 rebounds and 9.6 assists.
After Monk lit up North Carolina for 47 points Saturday in Las Vegas and Fox went for 24 and 10 assists, most pregame analysis here was nearly unanimous: backcourt advantage – big advantage – to Kentucky.
Even the Louisville staff was privately concerned about the guard matchup. How was Snider going to hold up against the 2017 lottery picks he’d be facing?
Just fine, it turned out.
With Pitino mixing defenses and making sure his players stalked Monk around the 3-point line, Louisville frustrated him into a 1-for-9 performance from outside the arc just four days after he dropped eight 3s on the Tar Heels. And Snider, who had all of one steal on the season, doubled that on the night with two.
That brought a smile to Pitino’s face. The Cardinals entered this game 10-1 and ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll, but the Hall of Fame coach knew he needed more from his point guard to snap Louisville’s four-game losing streak to the Wildcats (eight of nine since John Calipari swaggered into Lexington).
Pitino got more from Snider in the biggest game of the year to date.
The pièce de résistance came with 104 seconds remaining and Louisville holding a tenuous, 67-63 lead. Snider came off a high screen and found Kentucky’s 6-foot-10, 260-pound Adonis of a freshman, Bam Adebayo, switched onto him. Snider put the shake-and-bake on Adebayo and left him literally falling to the ground at his feet as he blew past for a key layup.
“Q is a very good offensive player,” Pitino said. “You may lose something on defense that you get back on offense.”
Kentucky loses a bit on defense itself with its youth and inattention to detail at that end of the floor. The Wildcats have been quite successful just running and gunning, playing fast and loose, a style North Carolina was quite willing to accommodate last Saturday.
After a six-minute track meet to start this game, Louisville got back in transition and turned the game into a half-court battle. The best defense in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy was going to make the Wildcats work, and execute, and think. That didn’t go so well for Big Blue.
“We didn’t have discipline,” Calipari said about half a dozen times postgame.
Cal also pointed out the date of the game several times: Dec. 21. It’s early, and that’s important to keep in mind for a team that starts four freshmen and a sophomore.
“We’ve got a lot of time,” Calipari said.
In no sport is the regular season more of a glossed-over walkover than college basketball. December games barely move the needle. March is what counts.
But this December game was hugely important in the city of Louisville. The Cardinals would love to make another deep NCAA tournament run after sitting out last year due to a self-imposed ban, but beating Kentucky after years of painful losses will rank alongside – and possibly ahead of – whatever this team does in the postseason.
Pitino is heading to South Florida with his family for Christmas on Thursday. He joked that if his team had lost this one, “I would have gone out fishing and called [Louisville associate athletic director] Kenny [Klein] and said, ‘You take over.’ “
It didn’t come to that, because Quentin Snider took over. And in the process earned himself some indelible local lore.
“He’s going to live with this,” said teammate Donovan Mitchell, “for the rest of his life.”
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