LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The uneasy truce between Kentucky and Louisville fans will get its ultimate test Saturday, when the blood rivals meet at the Final Four.
In bars, restaurants and living rooms across the state, die-hard fans are geared up to gather for what could be called a state holiday: It’s the most ramped-up rendition of a rivalry played each regular season. But the stakes were never higher—a berth in the national championship game Monday night in New Orleans.
In the land of bourbon, bluegrass and basketball, it’s hoops that reign supreme in Kentucky.
And bragging rights that could last a lifetime were on the line in the commonwealth’s latest version of The Dream Game. In 1983, Louisville beat Kentucky in overtime in the 1983 NCAA Mideast Regional Finals. It was the teams’ first meeting since 1959.
The state was awash this week in Wildcat blue and Cardinal red as fans wore their emotions on their sleeves. And on their heads. And on flags waving from their vehicles.
Both schools exhorted their students to cheer on their teams but to show restraint. Police in Louisville and Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky, planned to beef up patrols Saturday night to quell any problems sparked by the bitter rivalry that divides families and neighbors.
In Lexington, police said, at least 12 sofas were set on fire in neighborhoods around campus last Sunday after the Wildcats defeated Baylor to earn their Final Four berth.
The Final Four meeting between Kentucky and Louisville, two traditional basketball powers, was sure to be a financial windfall for bars and restaurants bracing for big crowds.
At Sully’s Saloon, managers brought in more beer kegs for thirsty fans and assigned extra bouncers to keep the peace. The establishment in Louisville’s downtown entertainment district expected a mixed crowd of Louisville and Kentucky fans for the game.
"It’s definitely going to be intense," said Dakota Clemens, a manager. "We’ve already had arguments from previous games with UofL and UK fans in here together, and they weren’t even playing yet."
John Keene, who works downtown, expected an electric atmosphere in the entertainment district.
"It’ll be a madhouse," said Keene, a Louisville fan who was wearing a Final Four T-shirt.
He saw Kentucky and Louisville fans mingle uneasily earlier in the NCAA tournament. The only time they cheered as one was when Duke lost early in the tournament, he said.
It’s the fifth time the schools situated 70 miles apart have met in the NCAA tournament—the two sides split the four previous meetings.
Kentucky won the earlier matchup this season, 69-62 on Dec. 31.
Adding fuel to the fire, Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino, who is still viewed by many Wildcat fans as a turncoat.
Pitino led Kentucky to three Final Fours and won one championship, but left in 1997 to take another shot at the NBA. Now, Louisville is back in the Final Four for the second time under Pitino’s tutelage.
The bitter feelings between the two fan bases were underscored early in the week at a dialysis center in Georgetown, Ky. A 68-year-old Kentucky fan and 71-year-old Louisville fan got into an argument about who will win the game. Police say the Kentucky fan flipped off the Louisville fan, who promptly punched the Wildcat fan in the face. Police were summoned but the Kentucky fan declined to file charges.