Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Ultimate Bluegrass Battle

Rivalries that have withstood the tests of time are part of the allure of college sports.

Off the top of your head, you can rattle off some of the great ones: Army-Navy, North Carolina-Duke, Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Harvard-Yale and USC-UCLA, to name a few. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, however, there is one college basketball rivalry that burns brighter than any other: Kentucky vs. Louisville.

 The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry stretched beyond state borders in this year's NCAA Tournament

Separated by roughly 75 miles, Kentucky and Louisville have each built strong college basketball legacies. Entering the 2011-12 season, the Wildcats had claimed seven national championships, while the Cardinals countered with two titles of their own.
In their head-to-head series, Kentucky has held the upper-hand, having won 29 of the first 43 contests. The first meeting occurred in 1913, a 34-10 victory for the Wildcats in Lexington.

This Kentucky squad defeated Louisville in 1913 (Photo courtesy:

After years of dormancy and occasional NCAA Tournament matchups, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry became a schedule staple in 1983, when the teams agreed to meet in an annual non-conference game.

Never before, however, had Kentucky and Louisville met on the most grandiose of college basketball stages: the Final Four.

Wasn't the Final Four, but Louisville beat Kentucky in 1983 NCAA Tournament (Associated Press photo)

When the 2012 NCAA Tournament brackets were released, those in the Commonwealth took notice. With the Wildcats receiving a #1 seed in the South region, and the Cardinals seeded 4th in the West, it became possible that the two schools could meet in a national semifinal game in New Orleans.

Despite that possibility, it was anything but likely. Each team would have to defeat four opponents on the way to the Final Four, and during March Madness, almost anything can happen.

 The bracket left the door open to a Kentucky-Louisville matchup in the Final Four

After dispatching Davidson and New Mexico in the opening rounds, Louisville faced the West's #1 seed, Michigan State, in the Sweet 16. Using a stifling defense, the Cardinals emerged with a 57-44 win to end up one step away from the Final Four. In the regional final, Louisville made up an 11-point deficit in the 2nd half to defeat Florida and earn a trip to New Orleans.

 Louisville battled through the West region to reach the Superdome

Kentucky, meanwhile, had a much easier path. The Wildcats rolled past Western Kentucky and Iowa State in the early rounds, then avenged a regular season defeat to Indiana by beating the Hoosiers, 102-90 in the Sweet 16. Big Blue cruised to a victory over Baylor in the South region final, setting up a Final Four matchup against their bitter rivals.

All of Kentucky's previous tournament wins were by double-digits

The buildup to the national semifinal proved to be too much for some. One Kentucky television station reported that a fight broke out during the week between Louisville and Kentucky fans at a dialysis clinic, of all places. One could only wonder if the nightly revelry on Bourbon Street would provide more opportunities for fisticuffs.

 Both fan bases were pumped for their ultimate rivalry game

Saturday, March 31st shaped up as a sunny and warm day in New Orleans, and there was a tremendous vibe in the humid air. Fans from all of the participating Final Four teams were out-and-about in the downtown area, proudly displaying their colors for all to see.

For those who couldn't wait to get the basketball action under way, many headed to Bracket Town -- a fan festival at the Ernest Morial Convention Center. While there, patrons could shoot hoops on various courts, get autographs from former college stars and take part in numerous photo opportunities.

 The Final Four teams' logos on display at Bracket Town

This year's event shaped up as a who's who of college basketball, with Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State all taking part. All four teams had reached the big stage at least once during the past decade, and all had previously won national championships.

Kentucky and Louisville fans were the most vocal, however. Throughout New Orleans, chants of "C-A-R-D-S, Cards!" and "C-A-T-S, 'Cats, 'Cats, 'Cats!" filled the air along Bourbon Street, in-between sips of various beverages and cocktails.

 Louisville and Kentucky fans were out in force on Bourbon Street

Despite the ongoing tension between the two fan bases, the spirit of the city and the event itself seemed to overcome everything. Outside of some slight trash-talking and booing, those dressed in Louisville red and Kentucky blue remained well-behaved, leaving their beloved teams to settle the score on the court.

As I arrived at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Louisville and Kentucky cheerleaders were providing fans at the Tip-Off Tailgate party with separate pregame performances. As the routines concluded, those in the audience remained loyal to their respective sides. The Cardinals' fans applauded the Louisville cheerleaders and booed the Kentucky side, while Wildcats' fans responded in kind. The rivalry was slowly heating up as gametime approached.

 The Kentucky cheerleaders perform during the Tip-Off Tailgate

Inside the dome, fans slowly filed in and looked around in amazement. Many had never seen basketball played in such a large venue, while others simply soaked in the atmosphere of the Final Four.

 The Superdome wasn't your ordinary basketball arena

In Section 504, my seat was surrounded by a diverse group of fans. While most were cheering on Kentucky, others were clad in red-and-black for Louisville, scarlet-and-gray for Ohio State, or blue-and-red for Kansas. The Final Four was moments from taking place.

 Opening tip-off between Kentucky and Louisville at the Final Four

Wearing bright red uniforms that had a glowing, orange effect on the eyes, Louisville scored the opening basket in the national semifinal game. Their in-state rivals would quickly strike back, however, running up 8 consecutive points and forcing Cardinals' head coach Rick Pitino to take a time out.

Kentucky continued to apply offensive pressure in the game's early stages, with the Wildcats hitting 7 of their first 8 shot attempts from the floor. A driving, two-handed dunk by sophomore forward Terrence Jones gave Big Blue Nation a 16-6 lead with 13:10 left in the 1st half.

 Terrence Jones throws down a dunk early in the game

At the other end of the floor, Louisville was struggling. Turnovers and missed shots had resulted in a scoring drought of nearly three minutes for the Cardinals, leaving supporters to throw their hands up and look to the Superdome roof in bewilderment and disgust.

The agony for Louisville fans would be prolonged with 5:37 remaining in the half, as star forward Anthony Davis caught a lob pass from point guard Marquis Teague and spectacularly dunked the ball through the hoop. Kentucky fans leapt to their feet following the impressive display of athleticism, which gave the Wildcats a 24-14 advantage.

 Anthony Davis converted this incredible alley-oop dunk for Kentucky

The #1 team in the nation was rolling, and those who made the roughly 745-mile trek from Lexington to New Orleans stood and applauded. Still, those dressed in red were determined to ruin the Big Blue party.

During the next four minutes, the Cardinals rallied against their rivals. Spurred by some tenacious defense and strong rebounding, Louisville trimmed the Kentucky lead to just three points, 31-28, capped by a transition dunk by sophomore center Gorgui Dieng. Suddenly, Wildcats' fans quietly stared at the court, while Cardinals' fans jumped up-and-down in excitement.

 Louisville fans show their support as the Cardinals rally

Kentucky would restore some order before the buzzer sounded at the end of the 1st half, taking a 35-28 lead into the locker room. Still, Louisville fans and those hoping for an upset were encouraged by the situation. The Wildcats shot 60% from the field in the 1st half, yet only led by seven points. The game was far from over.

 Kentucky held the halftime lead, but Louisville was hanging around

As the two rivals returned to the court for the 2nd half, one couldn't help but notice the calm demeanor that surrounded both Kentucky and Louisville. Despite playing on college basketball's biggest stage -- in front of 73,361 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- the teams went about their routine like it was a regular season game in December.

 Kentucky head coach John Calipari discusses 2nd half strategy with his team

Looking to build on their end-of-half momentum, Louisville came out firing to start the 2nd stanza. A three-pointer by guard Chris Smith and block by Dieng in the opening minute to help make it a 37-32 game, leaving some to wonder if the #1 Wildcats -- who entered the game with a 36-2 record -- were vulnerable.

 Gorgui Dieng blocks a shot by Doron Lamb early in the 2nd half

After a timeout by head coach John Calipari, the young Kentucky team regained its composure. A jump shot by senior guard Darius Miller, a jump hook by Davis and a dunk by Miller restored the Wildcats' lead to double-digits, 43-32, with 16:46 left in the 2nd half.

Throughout the Superdome seating area, fans were becoming seemingly resigned to the idea that Kentucky would be advancing to the national championship game. The Wildcats were hitting on over half of their shot attempts and maintaining a tough defensive presence. Even the many UK fans in attendance were a little subdued with their cheers.

 Fans throughout the Superdome expected Kentucky to maintain their lead

That's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament, however. Even during the Final Four, the unexpected can happen.

Midway through the 2nd half, Louisville launched a furious rally, going on a 15-3 run to tie the game at 49. Guard Peyton Siva's game-tying three-pointer sent the Superdome into a frenzy. No longer were patrons leaning back in their chairs. In fact, many were not even sitting!

 Peyton Siva made some key shots during the Cardinals' comeback

After the two collegiate heavyweights traded blows during the next few minutes, Kentucky's unsung senior, Darius Miller, would once again step up, scoring five points within a 40-second span to give the Wildcats a 60-51 lead with just 4:29 left in regulation. Did Louisville have enough in the tank to make another run?

 Senior Darius Miller was an unsung hero for the Wildcats in this game

The Cardinals would rally to make it a 63-58 game with 1:23 remaining. But Kentucky's star freshmen would combine to provide the defining dunk of the contest.

Once the Wildcats broke Louisville's full-court press, forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist dribbled into the frontcourt, then flipped the ball toward the basket. There was Anthony Davis, catching it with one hand and emphatically slamming it through the hoop. Kentucky fans leapt to their feet, with arms raised in victory. Even though there was still a minute left, it was a play that broke the Cardinals' spirit.

Anthony Davis' one-handed, alley-oop slam would essentially finish off Louisville
When the final buzzer sounded, the octagonal scoreboard above the Superdome court read "Kentucky - 69, Louisville - 61." The Wildcats had vanquished their in-state rivals at college basketball's premier event, providing bragging rights that may never be topped.

 Kentucky moves on to the national championship game

As the two teams lined up to shake hands, the Kentucky band triumphantly played the school's fight song, "On! On! U of K." Those affiliated with Big Blue Nation clapped along with the music.

Meanwhile, a fascinating situation was playing out in the Superdome's upper deck. Hundreds of seat cushions -- a free giveaway to those in attendance -- were being flung into the air, with some traveling all the way to the lower level of the stadium. Some of the cushions were tossed in anger by distraught Louisville fans, while others were a part of the Kentucky celebration.

 These giveaway seat cushions became popular projectiles for some

A lot of ingredients go into a tasty college rivalry: program success, tradition, proximity, great games, and important matchups. Kentucky and Louisville encompass all of those aspects.

Ever since the very first meeting in 1913, a bitter Bluegrass State rivalry has developed between the Wildcats and Cardinals, providing fans with stories, thrills and occasional arguments. This Final Four matchup was no exception -- though this time, only those wearing blue will look back fondly upon it.

 The Bluegrass Battle in the Big Easy went Kentucky's way

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