By Ken Cross
The Louisville Cardinals played a gritty, hard-nosed game Saturday afternoon in a 75-73 loss at Kentucky. Down 52-36 early in the second half, they staged a rally that saw them pull to within one at 65-64 with 5:36 remaining and also by two on a couple of other occasions.
The key was getting down so far on the road and the dynamic leadership of Wildcats sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, who finished with 21 points and eight assists in 39 minutes. Ulis is John Calipari’s floor general as he staked Kentucky to a quick 9-3 lead with a pair of his four three-point shots in the first 3:23. Then made two other triples to stave off the Cardinals in the clutch of what was a thrilling basketball game at Rupp Arena.
“I knew he would get it in, and then we could get it back to them,” said Calipari, on Ulis sticking to taking the ball of the dribble even after the quick threes, “The way they play, that guy, you can throw it back to him. So, they didn’t — even (trap) when they put a guy on the ball, that guy usually is trying to trap. So, that’s why we did it.”
Ulis hyperextended his elbow in Kentucky’s win over South Florida in late November and did not play in the next game vs. Illinois State. In his last four games, he was only 12-of-45, while six of those were three pointers while dishing 27 assists in playing nearly 40 minutes per game. Even with Ulis struggling, he has to maintain a leadership role from the point with such young players beside of him. The tough thing is struggling with such a low percentage and trying to placate respect when he speaks.
“I let him figure it out because they’re in that lodge together,” Calipari said of Ulis being vocal, “They know who they can get on.”
Saturday, Ulis seemed to get his game back close to where it needs to be. He looked like he felt better physically and mentally than he had since early in the season as he sliced to the basket, got to the foul line, and then pulled up for a mid-range jumper to keep Kentucky ahead in the first half. He finished the half with 15 points and four assists as he was clearly varying his game.
“It was a great team performance and we came out with a lot of energy from the jump ball,” said Ulis, “As a team I feel like we played really hard and that’s what got us the win.”
Possibly, his biggest moment though as an NBA-triple with time running down on the shot clock that gave Kentucky a 68-64 lead with 4:57 left after Louisville had diced the lead to one.
“The clock was running down,” said Ulis, “I had no choice but to shoot it. I shot it in rhythm and it went in.”
Even as a sophomore, the leadership that the dynamic 5-9 point guard can provide is a must from the point if Kentucky is going to reach back into the lofty heights of the John Calipari era, as such. He has represented well, though, in how he has played monumental minutes and not been close to 100 percent over his last five games.
As the game ended, Ulis started cramping and it looked as if Calipari might have to sub for him with the game on the line. Ulis proved he was a gamer, once again, as he stepped in and finished, vanquishing any doubts from the outside about his leadership skills.
“I was just trying to get him out of the game,” noted Calipari, on when he saw Ulis cramping, “That’s all I was trying to do. One of the things that I saw, the players at Louisville were playing 29 minutes a game — and not the Michigan State game. That game they played 39 and 37 — and so I said, ‘if they’re not subbing theirs, I’m not subbing mine.’ They’re not in better shape than us, but Tyler figured it out. With a minute to go, whatever it was, he was cramping, I said, ‘can you get through this?’He said, ‘I got this.'”
The Wildcats’ SEC opener is in Rupp Arena vs. Ole Miss next Saturday at 7 p.m. while Louisville opens ACC play at home vs. Wake Forest next Sunday evening at 8 p.m.