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LEXINGTON, Ky. – The battle for basketball supremacy in the Bluegrass State between Louisville and Kentucky begins Sunday.
The men's teams square off on Dec. 28, but the month starts with the fourth-ranked Cardinals' and No. 7 Wildcats' women's teams resuming their in-state rivalry with many of the same compelling story lines as last season.
Both 7-0 teams are ranked in the top 10 again with national championship aspirations, which Louisville nearly achieved last spring before an NCAA final loss to Connecticut — which denied Kentucky's quest to reach its first Final Four.
The Cardinals and Wildcats are both well-balanced offensively, play pressure defense and deep, setting up the possibility of another tight game. Kentucky won 48-47 in Louisville last year on Janee Thompson's 3-pointer with 8.5 seconds remaining.
"It's a big game," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Friday. "I think any time we get together in any sport it's certainly important for our fans. So no matter what the records are I think it's an important game, very important for us at Kentucky.
"You put in the mix that both teams are really playing at a high level, highly thought of around the country. It's still very early in the season but where we are right now, both teams are in the top 10 and it's an important game."
Kentucky enters the 50th meeting with a 31-18 series lead, including 15 straight wins against Louisville at Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats also have a two-game winning streak over the Cardinals thanks to Thompson, a freshman who came off the bench to rally Kentucky from a 14-point second half deficit with 13 points including the game-winning jumper.
Thompson is now a starting guard for the Wildcats, who face the first of two ranked opponents this week. Kentucky also plays No. 9 Baylor on Friday night in Arlington, Texas.
The Wildcats have beaten opponents by an average margin of 37 points while forcing 10.3 more turnovers per contest. Thompson, Bria Goss and Kastine Evans comprise another strong backcourt trio for Kentucky, while forwards DeNesha Stallworth (13.7 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) and Samarie Walker (11.4 points, 10.3 rebounds) have been solid.
Impressive as the Wildcats have been, they know they will have to play even better to beat their first Top 25 foe this season, which just happens to be their archrival.
"It's a really big game because it's Louisville," Walker said after Wednesday's 117-77 victory over Bradley. "They're a top-five team and we want to get the win on our home court."
Louisville coach Jeff Walz has tried to keep this rivalry game in perspective, viewing it as just one contest in a long season that might be forgotten by March. The Cardinals obviously shook off last year's loss to make an impressive NCAA tournament run highlighted by an upset of No. 1 and defending champion Baylor.
That's not saying Walz doesn't want to be a rival school.
"It's great for the fans," Walz said. "It's a game we all want to win, no question about it. We like to win every game we play.
"But I'll say it again. ... It's our eighth game of the year. If we're fortunate enough to win the game and this is the best thing we have to say about our year, I'm disappointed in what we've done."
Walz has no complaints so far about a team that comes in with its highest ranking ever thanks to wins over No. 14 LSU and No. 11 Oklahoma en route to capturing the preseason WNIT. The Cardinals have followed up with hard-fought victories over Florida State and Western Kentucky this week.
Louisville also has a deeper roster this season with the returning forwards Asia Taylor and Shawta' Dyer, and guard Tia Gibbs from injuries. Taylor is starting and averaging 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, one of four Cardinals scoring in double figures.
She and fellow forwards Antonita Slaughter (10.7 points, five rebounds) and Sara Hammond (11.0, 7.4) have helped the Cardinals outrebound opponents by a margin of 14.1 per contest.
But Louisville faces a tough challenge against a Kentucky squad that has won 42 straight nonconference home games, helped by the energy it generates at Memorial. Wildcats players have seized on that emotion to put away opponents with big runs and will try to do so again on Sunday.
Walz believes the Cardinals can walk away with bragging rights in a hostile environment by keeping the poise that has already helped them win some tough contests at home and away.
"They're going to go on runs, we're going to go on runs," Walz said. "It's all in how we handle it. ... It's going to come down to who's able to withstand the runs and who's able to get their composure when the opposing team goes on a run."