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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The sight of a 6-foot-6, 250-pound man elevating as he attempts to rip a rim off its foundation is stunning.
The size-to-glide ratio is uneven. The backboard's survival is surprising. It's an assault that emits a vociferous clang as the cylinder is violently snatched before it ricochets back into place -- a sound fans frequently heard Saturday when Chane Behanan entered the paint.
That noise was one of the few that Rick Pitino allowed Behanan to make for two months. In October, he banned the sophomore from media appearances for unstated reasons.
That ban was lifted after Behanan's effort in an 80-77 victory over archrival Kentucky at the KFC Yum! Center.
"They took the ban off of me, and it feels wonderful. I had to humble myself and just come back to earth," said Behanan, who finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. "Knowing Gorgui [Dieng] wasn't going to play a lot of minutes today, I just had to be the aggressor as far as the big men goes. And with [Montrezl Harrell] coming off the bench, a freshman, he's really not used to all of this, playing big rivals. I just had to set the tone for us and get the [win]."
Russ Smith finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals, and his jukes and drives helped the Cardinals preserve their win over a UK team that found religion in the second half and nearly pulled off the upset.
|Chane Behanan poured in 20 points for Louisville, including two crucial dunks in the final minute.|
Behanan's attitude and aggression was pivotal too, especially for a team that wasn't sure how effective Gorgui Dieng would be in his first game since suffering a wrist injury in late November.
And it wasn't just Behanan's thunderous dunks that affected the game.
It was the impossible turnaround, off-balanced jump shot in the first half. It was the relentlessness. It was the force he used to move freshmen Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel off the block.
As the Wildcats fought in the final minutes -- after digging themselves a 17-point second-half hole -- it was Behanan who raced up the floor for a two-handed dunk that gave Louisville a 77-70 advantage with 44 seconds to play. When that wasn't enough to take the Wildcats' heart for good, he dunked again with 18 seconds on the game clock.
Since he could not speak -- certainly uncomfortable for the outgoing forward -- Behanan just played.
That's the preference for a Cardinals team that entered the season with a mission to return to the Final Four -- and leave with the title this time.
Louisville had squandered that opportunity nine months ago when it was outplayed by a young NBA squad known as the Kentucky Wildcats in the Final Four.
The Cards were praised for that run, but they didn't celebrate. They weren't satisfied. And they have carried that disappointment into 2012-13.
They took the ban off of me, and it feels wonderful. I had to humble myself and just come back to earth.” -- Louisville forward Chane Behanan
This team didn't gloat Saturday after the game. It could have. This rivalry is one of the most contentious battles in sports, amateur or professional. But the Cardinals congregated in the locker room as if they'd defeated a MAC school, not their greatest rivals.
The reason? Beating Kentucky was not this season's main goal.
"It's a real important game for the fans," Pitino said. "For us, we want to beat Kentucky, but not as much as the fans do. Our guys have great respect for Kentucky. They want to beat them, but we have the Big East coming up."
When the two teams met in late March at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisville was down by double digits just 10 minutes into the game. The Cardinals spent the rest of the night climbing out of that hole but failed to complete the comeback.
This group refused to enter halftime in a similar situation Saturday. In the first 11 minutes of the matchup, Kentucky committed just one turnover. As Louisville turned up the pressure, however, the Wildcats ended the half with seven.
Behanan (5-for-10, 11 points in the first half) drove the Cardinals to an eight-point lead at halftime.
"If Chane plays for real, he's going to help us a lot, winning games, and if we can get that from him every game, we're going to be fine," said Dieng, who registered 6 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks as his parents watched him play for the first time after traveling from Senegal.
Early in the second half, John Calipari drew a technical foul. His team recorded turnovers on its next four possessions. A squad that seemed rattled all afternoon edged toward a collapse in that stretch. With 14:46 to play, Louisville took a 17-point lead on a Smith layup.
But Big Blue didn't go away. A 17-point advantage became a two-point lead on Ryan Harrow's short jumper with 5:32 to play. By then, Dieng, Peyton Siva and Smith had drawn four fouls apiece. Their cautiousness and UK's renewed spirit turned a blowout into, well, Kentucky-Louisville.
|Archie Goodwin was forced into five turnovers as Peyton Siva and Russ Smith helped UL end a four-game losing streak to in-state rival Kentucky.|
In the final five minutes, however, the internal growth that has guided the Cardinals to the top of the rankings again was clear.
This wasn't a team that would fold, back down or back off. If the Cats were going to get the win, they'd have to take it from a Louisville team with more poise (just nine turnovers), better offensive execution than last season's team (48.4 field goal percentage) and a gritty forward who, for the past two months, could speak only when he had a ball in his hands.
With the lead at five with under two to go, the Wildcats missed two consecutive shots before the first of Behanan's two dunks in the final minute sealed the win. (Kentucky's 11-for-23 clip from the free throw line was another factor.)
"First, they have a different team. They had Anthony Davis, and they had [three other] first-round picks," said Siva, who finished with 19 points. "For us, it was trying to be more aggressive. In the Final Four, I think we weren't aggressive enough. We laid off of them, and they made a lot of good plays. This time we just tried to get some stops."
Siva is right. This is not the same Kentucky team that cut down the nets in April. It's younger. It's more inexperienced. There's a noticeable chasm between this season's level of talent and last season's.
This isn't the same Louisville squad either. Most of the characters are the same, but the Cards have a different swagger now. They don't really talk about it. They choose to demonstrate it.
"This team is not backing up to any team. We're just going to play," Dieng said. "We just want to win all the time. We don't care if it's a good win, bad or ugly. We just want to win."
And not say too much along the way.