LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Moral victory has never been part of the Kentucky basketball lexicon.
Nor would one expect it to be adopted in the aftermath of Saturday’s 80-77 setback to No. 4 Louisville.
The Wildcats, however, may look back at the loss to their bitter in-state rivals as a potential turning point in what has been a tumultuous season to date for the defending national champions.
Kentucky (8-4) trailed the Cardinals by 17 with 14:45 remaining in the second half and appeared to be on the verge of being blown out before staging a spirited rally to make the predominantly red-clad crowd of 22,810 at the KFC Yum! Center sweat out the final five minutes of play.
Louisville (12-1) came up with the clutch plays down the stretch to hold off the Wildcats and give Rick Pitino his first victory in five games against a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team, but the defeated didn’t walk away empty-handed. Kentucky came away with validation that different practice habits may be paying off.
“I told my team I liked their fight,” Calipari said. "... There was a sense of urgency today."
Pitino acknowledged he wasn’t very impressed with what he had seen from Kentucky earlier this season. That opinion changed Saturday.
“They’re going to be a great team come February,” he said of the Wildcats. “I marvel at what (Calipari) does with young players. Marvel at that. Two weeks ago, quite frankly, I didn’t think they were a very good basketball team. And now they’re a hell of a basketball team. In just a two-week span, they have really improved.”
Consider what the unranked Wildcats almost overcame Saturday:
• Louisville got major scoring production from stars Russ Smith (21), Chane Behanan (20) and Peyton Siva (19). The Cardinals shot 48 percent from the field;
• Kentucky’s second-leading scorer on the season at 14.5 points per game, freshman Alex Poythress, delivered only seven and played a season-low 15 minutes;
• The Wildcats made only 11-of-23 free throws (officially) and missed two others that were wiped out by Louisville lane violations;
• Trailing by four with 20 seconds left, Kentucky failed to use its final timeout and turned the ball over, leading to a dunk by Behanan that effectively ended the game.
“I told them this one was on me,” Calipari said of the final miscue, perhaps taking the heat off his young team with fan frustration stoked even higher in the rivalry game. “Hopefully I’ll do a better job and help them win more games than I cause them to lose. That play is a coach’s play.
“(Louisville) deserved to win, but I didn’t give our guys the chance they deserved the way they played down the stretch.”
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin scored 13 of his game-high 22 points in the final eight minutes to help give the Wildcats a chance to stage the comeback, but sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow is at the heart of Kentucky’s improved play.
The North Carolina State transfer, who missed four games earlier this season due to personal issues and had once seemed destined to leave the program, delivered his third-consecutive double-figure scoring game with 17 points. He also had five rebounds, three assists, two steals and no turnovers against Louisville’s vaunted pressure defense on a day when his teammates were flustered into 15.
“Everybody sees it,” Calipari said. “Ryan is better ... I grabbed him afterward and said, ‘This is where I wanted you at the beginning of the year. Now where do we go from here? How do we build on this?’”
Up next for Kentucky is a Wednesday matchup with Eastern Michigan at Rupp Arena. That marks the final nonconference game before getting into Southeastern Conference play, where the 'Cats are expected to be challenged by traditional East Division rival Florida and West Division newcomer Missouri for the league crown.
Calipari says going toe-to-toe with Louisville on the road should give the 'Cats confidence they need entering conference play.
“If there’s a better team in the country, I need to see them,” he said of the Cardinals. "This was an outstanding team and a great environment."
• Kentucky leads the all-time series against Louisville 30-15.
• The Wildcats lost for the first time in Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. They had won their previous matchup with the Cardinals in the downtown arena, plus two NCAA Tournament victories over Western Kentucky and Iowa State last season.
• Kentucky used the starting lineup of Harrow, Goodwin, Julius Mays, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein for the first time this season. Kyle Wiltjer came off the bench to score 14 points, including three 3-pointers during the Wildcats' second-half run.
• Kentucky is 0-4 when trailing at the half this season. The Cards held a 36-28 lead at the break Saturday.