Kentucky proves it's a contender, but Louisville holds on for win

Shook sets the net on fire with a Cardinals 3 (0:16)

Kylee Shook drains a 3-pointer to give Louisville a lead over Kenutcky. (0:16)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There were eight ranked teams with unbeaten records when No. 14 Kentucky put its spotless record on the line at home against No. 7 Louisville on Sunday.

There was one fewer by the time the Cardinals completed a 67-66 comeback victory to retain in-state bragging rights for the fourth consecutive year in a state where that matters quite a bit.

But there is one more contender for prizes available only in April. One more team that matters. One more team that will be better for the lessons learned by letting a win slip away.

Just ask Louisville. The Cardinals are already on the journey the Wildcats began Sunday.

A little more than two weeks ago, Louisville beat previously unbeaten and top-ranked Oregon. A few days later, the Cardinals played the other role in an uninspired loss at unranked Ohio State. That's a lot of learning about how good they can be -- and how little they or any team this season can afford to take success for granted or play at something less than full throttle.

When Rupp Arena roared its approval after Sabrina Haines hit a deep 3-pointer late in the third quarter, Kentucky owned a 55-45 lead. A little more than a minute later, the lead was down to two points. And less than a minute after that, Louisville reclaimed a lead it never relinquished.

A team that entered the season with as much inexperience as Louisville -- which lost one of its greatest players and three starters in all to the WNBA -- might also have lost its composure long enough to let that deficit become insurmountable Sunday. It might have if not for the Oregon and Ohio State games. Instead, Louisville junior guard Dana Evans needed barely 10 seconds to answer Haines' 3-pointer.

And rather than sink with what wasn't working, the Cardinals found a way to lift themselves.

Struggling to contain Kentucky All-American Rhyne Howard, who scored 20 points in the first half, Louisville turned to guard Yacine Diop. The redshirt senior, who transferred from Pitt last year and then missed most of the season with an injury, averages barely 12 minutes a game this season. Yet her 19 minutes Sunday turned the tide of the game. Her energy helped slow Howard, her rebounding helped put Kentucky on its heels and her surprising points led the third-quarter run.

"It's been a grind for her," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "She wants to do so well all the time that sometimes she tried to do too much and it's a negative effect. Today she was fantastic ... she just played within herself."

Not even Walz drew up a game plan that relied on Diop. But tested teams adapt.

"You have to give Diop a ton of credit in the second half," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She was extremely physical and hustled and was a tough defender on Rhyne. So I think Rhyne will grow from that as well, and our team will grow from what was a tough game."

Kentucky missed an opportunity to start 11-0 for the fourth time under Mitchell, but the more telling stat might be Mitchell's 9-10 record in Rupp Arena. The cavernous downtown arena is usually reserved for the biggest of games, the ones that bring the national television spotlight and more fans than can fit in nearby Memorial Coliseum. The record isn't a knock on Mitchell -- Kentucky didn't matter enough, wasn't good enough, to play those games or draw Rupp-sized crowds before he arrived. But those games are different beats.

And this team hadn't played one of those games before Sunday.

Among teams in a major conference, only Arizona's unbeaten record drew more skepticism from Associated Press Top 25 voters than the Wildcats' 10-0 mark entering Sunday's game. Seven teams ranked ahead of them owned at least one loss. The Wildcats didn't feast entirely on scheduling junk food during the season's opening weeks -- a trip to Middle Tennessee was tricky and a road win at Virginia had value.

But as its ranking reflected, Kentucky was an unknown. Even -- to some degree -- to its own coach, who intentionally set up a schedule to let this current group, many of whom are in new roles, grow together first.

"I didn't know exactly what was going to happen today," Mitchell said. "We played a couple of tough games early and then we've been on a series of games here where we won by very comfortable margins. You could put on tape, with [Louisville], the Oregon game and some of those games they played and you could tell what they were doing against top level competition."

Kentucky forced nine of its first 10 opponents into 20 or more turnovers, scoring 34 percent of its points off those turnovers. Even a team like Louisville, historically no stranger to using its defense to feed the scoreboard, only scored about a quarter of its points off turnovers. But those points weren't available against Louisville. Kentucky came out in the aggressive man-to-man defense that helped rout Charlotte and Winthrop. Louisville isn't those teams.

Nor was Kentucky going to hold Louisville under 55 points, as it had everyone else.

So the Wildcats had to find other answers. Haines took and made big shots. Kentucky continued to show the kind of long-distance shooting that was absent in the season's opening weeks. Most of all, it found answers in letting its star be just that.

"Rhyne Howard was the best player on the floor tonight, there's no question about it," Walz said "The past few years we had the best player on the court in Asia Durr."

And while he was happy that Kentucky had to get her the ball on the fly on the last possession, rather than set up a play, Howard still had a decent look to win the game.

"It wouldn't have surprised me at all if it went in," Walz said.

That flip of the coin went Louisville's way. But the Cardinals earned their chance to walk away winners by not letting the game slip away late in the third quarter. On a day when it did so much else well, Kentucky left itself open to the flip of the coin because it had not put away Louisville earlier.

"Today was not the outcome we wanted," Kentucky forward Tatyana Wyatt said. "But it was something that showed us what we can do."

They are no longer unbeaten. But they are among the teams that matter. Sometimes it takes a loss to prove it.