Over the past week the world and the folks around this area have been buzzing about the mini series shown on the History channel about the Hatfield & McCoy feud. But a few months ago in March there was a buzz about a different feud. The University of Louisville and University of Kentucky had both made it to the Final Four in New Orleans and would face each other for the first time ever in the national semi-final game.
Kentucky blew through their NCAA competition to reach the big game but it was a different story for our Cardinals. They won four games in four days to win the Big East. Then they avoided close calls against Davidson and New Mexico during the first weekend to advance to the West Regional. There they knocked off West number one seed Michigan State and then defeated Florida to reach the Final Four.
There’s only one game for bragging rights in Kentucky every year but this season it would be two. The Battle of the Bluegrass would take over New Orleans. UK and UofL fans would take over the city for perhaps the biggest chapter in this rivalries history. The original “Dream Game” happened in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. That year Louisville defeated Kentucky 80-68 in the Mideast Regional Final. The game took place in Knoxville Tennessee. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate that game, but this time I took full advantage of the moment.
I wore my colors proudly all week. Then loaded up and headed to the Big Easy with a group of guys I had grown up arguing this rivalry with. One side of the car had a blue flag and the other side had a red one. When we reached Tennessee we stopped at a local restaurant for a meal. We walked in decked out in our colors and sat at the bar. Some of the local patrons asked if we were headed to the big game and then asked how we could all be friends while cheering for opposite teams. We explained to them about how that made this rivalry so special, and this game so big.
We reached New Orleans early Saturday morning and had an awesome time that day partaking in the festivities of the French Quarter. While there we met up with other friends and family to celebrate our teams’ achievements. Later that night we would attend the Dream Game. My Cardinals gave a valiant effort and came up short against the arch rival Cats losing the game 69-61. But on this night and on this weekend in March there were no losers. It was an awesome time to be a college basketball fan in the state of Kentucky. And that’s why this is my #1 moment over last 5 years of Louisville basketball.
The 2012 basketball season was like riding a roller coaster. It had moments that made me laugh, smile, cry, and sick. I don’t think there has ever been a season where I have experienced such a wide variety of emotions. And on March 25 I had no idea that in one game I would shuffle through all those emotions again.
The Cardinals were on an impressive 7 game winning streak that included the run that won a Big East championship. But they weren’t done yet. Game number 8 would be the regional championship game in the NCAA tournament. It would be against the Florida Gators for the chance to advance to the Final Four. This game had all of the build up that you would expect from a regional championship but had something a little extra. Rick Pitino would be facing his former player and the guy he called a son Billy Donovan.
Donovan 0-7 versus his old coach would have a game plan early in this one that would give his Gators the lead 41-33 at the half. The Gator sharp shooters were having a field day with the Louisville zone hitting 8-11 from 3 point range. Rick would make some adjustments of his own at half time bringing his Cardinals out of the zone and putting them in the face of the Gator shooters.
With 10 minutes left in the game the Gators had a 60-49 advantage when the adjustments seemed to swing things in favor of the Cardinals. The Gators would miss all nine attempts from the 3 point line and get sloppy with the ball leading to 14 turnovers. With this aggressive defense the Cardinals would pay the price losing Peyton Siva to 5 fouls with 3:58 left in the game. But as they had done many times during the season the Cardinals would overcome this adversity. Louisville players Dieng, Smith, and Behanan stepped up finishing the game on a 23-8 run stunning the Gators with a 72-68 victory and punching their ticket to the Final Four.
Several times during this game I felt like it was going to be the end of the road for our Louisville Cardinals. At one point in the game I actually turned the channel. But just as they had done all season they found a way to win. They put a bow on this remarkable season with a regional championship. It was a comeback for the ages and a moment that ranks #2 in my countdown.
Freedom Hall was the home of the Louisville Cardinals for 54 years. If the walls could talk they would tell stories about the six national title games and regional titles that where held there. They would also have some great stories about the 683 victories that our Cardinals had while calling the place home. In those 683 victories there are some very memorable moments but the one that happened on March 6th 2010 might just be one of the best of them all.
#1 Syracuse would be the final opponent to visit the hallowed Hall. The moment for a big game like this couldn’t have been more fitting. The stage was set and it was time for the show to begin. The Syracuse stars lived up to their ranking in the first half dominating the Cardinals inside the paint 26 to 12. At one point in the first half Cuse would stretch the lead to 8 but a shot by Edgar Sosa would cut the lead to 5 to end the half at 35-30.
With things looking much the same early in the second half with the score 42-39 the Cardinals found their inside game and an unlikely hero would emerge from the bench. Then reserve Kyle Kuric would put his stamp on the Louisville program with a second half performance that will live forever in Cardinal lore. Kuric was described as a one man wrecking crew by all publications as he made 9 of 11 shots from the field with four of those being 3 pointers.
The Cardinals would take the lead in the second half and never look back. With 4 minutes left king Kyle would put a bow on his performance with a dunk that would put the Cardinals up 10. The final score would be 78-68 beating #1 Syracuse and adding one last highlight to their 54 year old home.
This game had all the pageantry for a final home game in one of the most storied venues in all of college sports. “It’s an unbelievable moment,” Kuric said. “It’s what every kid dreams of.” Rick Pitino would say of the moment “this building will close, but what our legends have done for our university will never pass and close.”
It was truly a great moment and one that made my countdown at #3.
4 – An improbable Big East Championship in an “InfraRED” uniform.
The Cardinals would head into the week of the 2012 Big East basketball championship with a lot of questions. They were coming off a regular season that was as disappointing as any I can remember. Even the most loyal fans weren’t giving the Cardinals any chance of winning the tourney title. Most were expecting an early departure from New York City.
The 7th seeded Cardinals would play their first game of the 2012 Big East tourney on Wednesday night against Seton Hall. They would also unveil their new, ultra-lightweight Adidas adizero uniforms. These uniforms were designed to be 25% lighter and the shorts were supposed to increase mobility and speed. The Cardinals would put on a defensive show in their new digs lead by Peyton Siva who had 6 steals and Gorgui Dieng who had 6 blocks. The Cardinals would hold Seton Hall to 33% shooting winning the game 61-55 moving them into the quarterfinal round against Marquette on Thursday night.
The Cardinals would come out on Thursday night against #9 Marquette looking faster than usual in those flashy new uniforms. They were all over the court making the Garden look like a neon light show. They would punish the Golden eagles with their pesky defense beating them 84-71 forcing them into a season high 26 turnovers and holding the Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder to 10 points. The Cardinals would now move forward with their new found confidence to face #23 Notre Dame on Friday night in the semi-finals.
The Cardinals now looking like the team we’ve heard about all season dominated the Irish in the Semi-finals 64-50. The Irish would be held to 36% shooting and would become the sixth opponent in Louisville’s last seven games to be held to 60 points or fewer. Peyton Siva continued his flawless court performance and Dieng continued his domination in the paint as the Cardinals would advance to their third Big East title game in four years.
It would be the Louisville Cardinals facing their old foe the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Big East finals. The Bearcats would have their own magical run in the new Adidas uniforms including a win over top seeded Syracuse in the Semi-Finals. This game would be the first time that old CUSA teams would play in the finals. These teams have played 90 times before in different conferences. Defense would be the theme of the tourney for our Cardinals and it wouldn’t be any different as they would beat Cincy 50-44 in the lowest scoring game in the history of the Big East finals. Our Louisville Cardinals would win their second Big East Tournament Championship winning four games in four days. Peyton Siva continued his solid play and claimed the Big East tourney MVP. Rick Pitino would say of his teams efforts “We did a lot of really good things defensively,” “We knew it was going to take defense to win this game.” “I think you can see how excited our guys are and how much the tournament means to us.” “It’s special because I love coaching these guys. We have a very unusual group. It’s a throw back.” Peyton Siva was quoted after the game “Nobody really expected us to even get this far.” “It just feels good because a lot of people wrote us off. Coach P had a lot of faith in me. I’m very thankful for that. Everybody really showed a lot of heart today.”
Many of us did write them off, and the crow never tasted better. It made this Big East Tournament a very special moment. It truly was a magical run in those crazy looking uniforms. And that’s why the 2012 Big East Tournament is #4 in my countdown.
The Cardinals had a memorable 2008-2009 basketball season with several of their moments worthy of a top 10 countdown. After finishing the season claiming their first regular season Big East Title in a thrilling win over West Virginia the Cardinals headed into a Big East Tournament that would be one of the wildest ever.
They opened up play in the quarterfinals against Providence with an easy win over the Friars, but would have their hands full with Villanova in the semifinal round. As they had done several other times during this crazy season the Cardinals came out flat and uninspired in the first half. Rick Pitino would tell his guys at half time that he didn’t know who they were. The Cardinals would eventually wake up in the second half and top Villanova putting them in the Finals against Syracuse.
#5 Louisville and #18 Syracuse would face of for the Big East Tourney crown after Cuse had played an epic 6 overtime game against Uconn the night before. This tourney seemed like destiny for Cuse, but the Cardinals would have something for their magical run. The Louisville pressure defense would be too much to overcome for a team that had played an extra half of basketball in overtime games. Louisville would pull away from Cuse in the second half and win 76-66
Louisville would win its first Big East Tournament Championship to go along with the first regular season title they had already claimed. They would do this in what most believed the toughest year since the Big East’s inception. The Big East would have 9 teams ranked in the polls at one time during the regular season, and four teams were ranked in the top 10 when the Big East Tourney started. This included the #2 and #3 teams. Rick Pitino would say of his teams accomplishment “These guys have bought into total team.” “We did it in the toughest year in the history of the Big East to sweep both. I’m gushing with pride.”
This game would put a bow on a magical season for the Cardinals. They would sweep the Big East in only their 4th season in the league, and would finish the season at 28-5 with the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. All of this made this game an easy choice for the top 5 in my countdown.
6 – 21,218 for the Red/ White scrimmage. A new arena, and era begins.
It was the day that every Louisville Cardinal fan had waited for. We would no longer play second fiddle to truck pulls, horse shows, and rodeos. And we would no longer have to watch as our arch rival Kentucky got to play a game on our home court. The University of Louisville Basketball team would finally have a home to call its own.
Tickets were grabbed up fast by Cardinal fans and the Red/white scrimmage was sold out in days. Louisville Fans weren’t going to pass up the chance to see their new digs. We would be moving into a brand new arena, and Rick Pitino announced that his team would be playing a new style of basketball. Rick said he would turn his guys loose and let them play a fast pace offensive.
The arena would not disappoint it was as shiny and great as I expected it to be. The Red Team would get a 124-113 victory over the White Team as both sides played at a fast pace and shot over 50% from the field.
“Great crowd, great arena,” head coach Rick Pitino said. “We’re getting what we want out of this style of play. It’s very easy to want to play this way. It’s difficult, but they want to play it.”
Normally a scrimmage game would not be in a top 10 countdown, but on a night as special as this it made mine at number 6.
The 2010-2011 season would be different for the Cardinals. Unlike the previous seasons this group wouldn’t have the super talented go-to guys to help them win games. This team would have to rely on their collective skills to have success. On January 15, 2011 in a home game against the Marquette Golden Eagles the Cardinals would prove that they could win as a team, and prove that they were a team that would fight to the end.
A few days earlier the Cardinals had been exposed for every weakness they had against Villanova. It looked as if the same thing would happen again as Marquette dominated the Cardinals for the entire first and most of the second half. With 5:44 left in the game it looked to be over at 65-47. But then the unthinkable happened as the Cardinals started to put together a string of baskets that would end with the Marquette lead being cut to 70-69 with 12 seconds left.
Then with most of the Yum Center crowd in their cars heading home the ball was inbounded to Preston Knowles, and it looked like he would be the one to take the final shot. It seemed the Marquette coach had the same idea as three of the Golden Eagles players converged on Knowles. Knowing he was going to attract the attention Knowles found Kyle Kuric slicing to the basket for a lay-up that seemed to roll around the rim forever before going in to win the game.
The Cardinals had come back from 18 points down with 5:44 left to win the game. Kyle Kuric was quoted after the game “If we were going to lose, we were going to lose fighting.” Knowles said after his heads up play “They were all concentrating on me, and I made them pay for it.” Rick Pitino was in awe of his scrappy team and said after the game “That’s one of the top-five comebacks,” “They outplayed us for the first 34 minutes. I’m really proud of these guys. I’m shaking. It happened so fast.”
It really was an awesome come back and one that most fans had to hear on the radio driving home from the game. Just goes to show you it isn’t over till it’s over, and that’s why this is #7 in my countdown.
8 – A Number One Goes down in front of 5th largest crowd….
After struggling in the early part of the season in 2009 the Cardinals got on a roll winning 4 straight including the big win a few weeks earlier over in state rival UK. But they still had some work to do to prove that their lofty preseason ranking of #3 in the country was not a misprint. The Cards would have their chance to do just that on January 17, 2009 in front of 20,082 fans when Big East rival Pitt visited the Hall. The Panthers had gotten to the #1 spot in the polls for the first time in the school’s history after a 16-0 start to their season.
The game started in favor of the #1 Panthers as they were living up to their ranking and held control of the game for most of the first and second half. With 8:48 left in the game they seen their lead evaporate. Big shots by Earl Clark, T-Will, and Preston Knowles pulled the Cardinals within one. Then a monster dunk by Samardo Samuels tied the game at 58 all. The Cards would eventually take the lead for good and win the game 69- 63 as the Panthers had no answer for the pressure defense. They would have a season high 20 turnovers for the game.
The rivalry with Pitt has become one of the most compelling in the Big East since joining the conference. And it was great watching the Cardinals beat them and Knock them off their lofty perch. That alone would have made this a pick for a top 10 moment in the last 5 years but the fact that this was the first win over a #1 team since 2003 made it a lock for number 8 in my countdown.
It was early into the 2008-2009 Basketball season and the preseason #3 Cardinals had dropped to #18 in the rankings after suffering 3 losses including a huge upset by instate Western Kentucky. After being dubbed one of the biggest early season disappointments it was looking like a season that could possibly be spinning out of control. Especially when Rick Pitino issued a press release that he had told his junior point guard Edgar Sosa to transfer. Sosa told Pitino that he just needed one last chance to make things right.
On January 4th 2009 big blue nation rolled into town and he would get that chance. And he would make the best of it. UK had some troubles of their own as new coach Billy Gillispie was struggling to win over the fans in Lexington. This would be his first trip to Louisville and would turn out to be his last.
The Cards took control of this game early and seemed to have the game won at 71-64 before the wheels came off. Two careless turnovers by Earl Clark and a scoring furry by UK’s Jodie Meeks led to a tie game at 71 with 23 seconds left on the clock. You could hear a pin drop in Freedom Hall as the Cardinals inbounded the ball to Edgar Sosa. Sosa dribble down across the half court line and with 2.8 seconds left heaved up a 24 foot shot that was good all the way. The roof came off of the Hall as time expired on the Cats to give UofL the win 74-71, and give them their first home win over UK since 2002.
After scoring 18 points and hitting the biggest shot of his life Sosa was quoted saying “I know that I can play this game and I know of the things I’m capable of doing on the court.” After going from zero to hero on Coach Pitinos list he was quoted as saying “I am really happy for Edgar because it’s been very difficult on him and he got an opportunity to be a hero, which he was.”
Any time my Cards beat the Cats it’s a great moment. But it’s really special when the game summary looks like the ending to a Hollywood Production. And that’s why this one is ranked #9 in my countdown.
10 – COLLEGE GAMEDAY, WHITE-OUT, 4th LARGEST CROWD AT THE HALL.
Saturday February 9th 2008 the Cards beat #6 Georgetown 59-51 in front of a crowd of 20,083. It was the fourth largest crowd to ever watch a game at Freedom Hall. College Gameday was in the house, and Rick broke out the white suit for the first time. He started sweating through it, and had to change at the half.
It was a different suit, and a different team after the half. The defense locked down and one of my favorite UofL players David Padgett had a season high 18 points in a breakout game. It was great seeing him have such a great game after suffering from a knee injury. Padgett said of the game “This is the best win I’ve ever experienced as a player.”
The Hall was unreal with everyone decked out in their white. Coach Pitino said after the game “This is a great win for us. Tonight’s crowd was as good a crowd as I’ve seen.”
It was a great game and a great crowd. That’s why it ranks number 10 in my countdown.