12:00 PM ET, December 18, 2004
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- The officials were checking TV replays to see whether Kentucky's Patrick Sparks should get three free throws in the final second against Louisville.Hoping to keep his player calm, coach Tubby Smith went over, put his arm around Sparks and struck up a conversation."I asked him what he's getting for Christmas -- to kind of break the ice," Smith said.Showing no nerves, Sparks made all three shots from the foul line to cap his 25-point performance and complete the Wildcats' big comeback for a 60-58 victory over their big rival and former coach Rick Pitino."I just wanted to step up there and not think about nothing," Sparks said.The Wildcats (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 9 AP) trailed 32-16 at halftime and were down 58-57 after Larry O'Bannon hit two free throws for Louisville (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 13 AP) with 15.2 seconds to go.Smith called timeout with 4.8 seconds left to set up the decisive play. Sparks inbounded the ball and then received a pass in the corner. He pump-faked and then jumped into airborne Louisville forward Ellis Myles to draw a whistle from referee J.B. Caldwell."I made a stupid play," said Myles, who had eight points and 10 rebounds.The buzzer sounded an instant later, and Caldwell and referee Gerald Boudreaux checked to see if Caldwell made the call before time expired. While the fans and players waited, Sparks chomped on gum and wandered around the court before Smith approached him."I was just hanging out really," Sparks said. "I just wanted to step up there and knock them down."With 0.6 seconds on the clock, Sparks -- a 71 percent shooter from the line -- swished the winning shots."I try to bring a lot of toughness to the team. That's what leaders do," said Sparks, who also hit five 3-pointers.The Wildcats had few doubts that Sparks would hit the shots."The guy's a shooter," Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes said. "We had all the confidence in the world."O'Bannon's desperation heave from half-court wasn't close, and the Wildcats snapped a two-game losing streak to Pitino, who coached Kentucky from 1989-97, winning the 1996 NCAA championship. After a stint with the NBA's Boston Celtics, he took over at Louisville in 2001.The Wildcats (7-1) overcame a 16-point halftime deficit for the first time since beating LSU in 1994 -- when Kentucky was coached by Pitino."It was an amazing win for us. This should go a long way for the confidence of this team," said Smith, now 2-7 against Pitino, his former boss at Kentucky.O'Bannon scored 16 to lead Louisville (6-2). The Cardinals' defense dominated the game until Sparks carried the 'Cats back in the final five minutes.The Western Kentucky transfer hit his fifth 3-pointer with 4:45 left and converted a three-point play with 2:55 remaining to shrink a 10-point Cardinals lead to four. Little-used walk-on Ravi Moss drew Kentucky to within one with a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:07 to play.Two free throws by Kelenna Azubuike gave Kentucky a 55-54 lead, its first since the score was 5-4.The Cardinals went four minutes without a basket until Francisco Garcia banked in a drive with 54 seconds left. Azubuike had a layup 20 seconds later to put Kentucky up 57-56.O'Bannon drew a blocking foul call with 15 seconds left, and Smith protested by pounding the scorer's table and nearly falling down as he stomped the floor.But Sparks had the answer, handing Pitino only his second December loss in four seasons at Louisville."It's a great win for them and a bad loss for us," Pitino said. "We had a lot of bad breaks, but we still should have ended the game."Louisville shut down Kentucky's offense early with a sticky, trapping zone defense. The Cardinals went on an 11-0 run during Kentucky's eight-minute scoring drought.The Cardinals -- with no active player taller than 6-foot-8 -- dominated the taller Wildcats inside in the first half, outscoring them 18-6 in the paint and outrebounding them 22-13. The flustered Wildcats went 5-of-24 from the field (21 percent) in the first 20 minutes."We were playing great, great defense," Pitino said.
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