LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Earlier this season, when his Kentucky basketball team lost to Duke in Atlanta, John Calipari cautioned his players not to accept defeat, not to buy into the notion that losing close was good enough.
The Wildcats did it again on Saturday, scrapping back into the game from 17 points down in an 80-77 loss to No. 4 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center, but this one felt different somehow.
Asked if there was a similar fear this time, Calipari said flatly, "No."
"We did get better," Calipari said. "I mean, everybody sees it."
And true, it's unlikely that three weeks ago Kentucky (8-4) could have fought back into the game from a 51-34 deficit with 14:45 to play. The UK team that was routed at Notre Dame showed little of the fight that carried it within striking distance of an upset of the Cardinals (12-1).
"There was no fight in the team (before)," Calipari said. "There was no sense of urgency. There was today."
It wasn't enough. But it was a start.
Louisville looked in stretches like the "well-oiled machine" Calipari called it on Friday, and never more so than in the second-half spell in which the Cards built their lead to 17 points.
The Cardinals got strong performances from Russ Smith (21 points, seven rebounds), Chane Behanan (20 points, seven rebounds) and Peyton Siva (19 points).
Rick Pitino's team forced turnovers and converted them into baskets. It attacked the rim with ferocity and played a stifling defense both in the full court and half.
"I've never played against a defensive team like that that's that rugged," said point guard Ryan Harrow, who had 17 points, three assists and no turnovers in 39 minutes.
Kentucky fought through that defense. Calipari made some adjustments - notably, he brought a big man to the ball on inbounds plays after Louisville baskets, giving the inbounder a tall target against the full-court press - and the Cats settled down.
Before long it was a game.
Pitino called it "a tribute to a young team" that Kentucky battled back.
Not so long ago, he doubts it could have.
"Two weeks ago, quite frankly, I didn't think they were a very good basketball team," Pitino said. "Now, they're a hell of a basketball team."
But not a good enough one to win at Louisville. Not a good enough one to overcome a hostile environment, a veteran team built to win an NCAA title, the first Louisville team, Pitino said, with talent as good as or better than Kentucky's since Calipari arrived in Lexington.
Kentucky saw no shortage of encouraging signs.
Though he missed critical free throws late, Willie Cauley-Stein played perhaps his best game, finishing with six points, eight rebounds, two assists and three blocked shots. After a virtual no-show in the first half, Archie Goodwin scored 19 of his game-high 22 points in the second. Kyle Wiltjer scored 14 points, making 4-of-7 three-pointers, including two in a 35-second span to spark UK's second-half rally.
But that rally came up short. And as good as Kentucky was in stretches, it wasn't good enough to win. It didn't get enough from Alex Poythress, who had seven points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. It had too many breakdowns defensively.
Asked if this loss felt different than the one at Notre Dame, if it was more encouraging because of the caliber of opponent, Harrow practically shrugged.
The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has added meaning for some, he noted. Wins are all that matter to his team.
"We're supposed to be the team making history and doing things, and it's kind of the other way around," Harrow said. "We need to step up as a team and try to finish this season off strong. It's not like a Kentucky team to keep on losing."