LEXINGTON, Ky. — Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hesitantly accepted a leadership role at first as the youngest member on No. 3 Kentucky's prospect-laden roster. Comfortable with his status, there's no telling just how far he can carry the Wildcats.
"I'm very shy, but I'm getting better," the 18-year-old forward said. "I just relax on the basketball court."
Kidd-Gilchrist had season-highs with 24 points and 19 rebounds to lead Kentucky in a rough-and-tumble 69-62 victory over No. 4 Louisville on Saturday to extend the nation's longest home winning streak.
"This is what I live for right here. Why? Because I've always been that way," Kidd-Gilchrist said of the physical play that at times turned it into more like a free throw shooting contest with 52 fouls called. "I'm built for this."
And Kentucky (13-1) seems built for a long NCAA tournament run after fellow freshman Anthony Davis added 18 points, all in the second half, as well as 10 rebounds and six blocks in the annual in-state rivalry game.
The Cardinals (12-2) only led at 2-0, but gave Kentucky all it could handle after rallying from an early 15-point deficit before tying it in the second half thanks to Russ Smith, who had a career-high 30 points.
"I've never coached a team that is willing to give the effort that this team gives," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Unfortunately there are no moral victories. We struggled shooting the basketball tonight."
Kidd-Gilchrist's hustle and Davis' emergence following first-half foul problems proved to be the difference with rapper Jay-Z, actress Ashley Judd and nearly a dozen NBA scouts watching.
With all the luminaries on hand, no one at Rupp Arena was more important to Kidd-Gilchrist than his mother, Cindy Richardson, who attended after being released from the hospital for an unspecified illness last week.
Kidd-Gilchrist said it meant a lot to see her at Rupp Arena after her hospital stay.
"It's very hard to see my mother there," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I was crying my eyes out that night, but she fought through it."
Kentucky has won 44 straight at home, including 43 in a row at Rupp Arena, for the nation's longest streak ahead of Duke's 43. This one will be remembered after the teams came in with the highest combined ranking in history.
With the game tied at 40 early in the second half, Louisville had a chance to take its second lead but Peyton Siva never hit the rim on an 18-foot jumper.
Kentucky went on a 7-0 run from there, with Kidd-Gilchrist hitting one of two free throws and making a layup on another trip before Davis got to the line and made four free throws over two possessions to make it 47-40.
Davis blocked Chris Smith on one end, then cleaned up Kentucky's fast break on the other to give the Wildcats a 49-42 lead. His alley-oop slam from Doron Lamb made it 56-48 with 6:40 left.
The battles kept going after the whistle with Davis and Rakeem Buckles tangled up on an out-of-bounds play and Davis pleading for a foul.
On another one, Davis went flying into the crowd trying to make a save and landed on an older woman in the front row. Kidd-Gilchrist came over, screaming, "A.D.! A.D.!" with a smile on his face as he pulled his teammate back toward the court.
"The crowd was crazy because of the rivalry," Davis said. "It was fun."
Kidd-Gilchrist's three-point play with 3:41 left gave the Wildcats a 61-50 lead, its first beyond double digits since the first half, and Kentucky won its third straight in the series.
"He wasn't bothered as much as some of the others by the physical play," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "He almost relished it."
Gorgui Dieng, who entered the second half with one foul, picked up three in a span of 2:20 to head to the bench with 16:08 left, but seconds later, Calipari picked up a technical foul for his displeasure with the officiating.
Trailing 40-36, Russ Smith hit a 3-pointer and was fouled by Kidd-Gilchrist. He converted it to tie the game with 15:21 left, but Louisville never got over the hump after also rallying from an 11-point deficit before losing against No. 12 Georgetown for its first loss on Wednesday.
"We never feel like we are out of it," Russ Smith said. "Any basketball player would know the game is not over until the 40 minutes is up, so we play hard. If we were down a few points less, it could have gotten interesting."
Louisville freshman Chane Behanan was the first player to lose his cool in this emotionally-charged matchup of schools separated by 78 miles. Behanan, recruited by both schools, had already picked up an early foul when he was called for a charge and assessed a technical for his reaction with 16:16 left in the first half.
Louisville opened with a 2-0 lead, but Darius Miller answered with a 3-pointer and Kidd-Gilchrist was the only Wildcat to make a field goal over the next 13:45 as Kentucky feasted at the foul line to build a 31-16 lead.
Trailing by 15 points, Louisville's two Smiths mounted a 13-0 run to get the Cardinals back in the game as Kentucky ended up taking a 36-33 lead at the half.
Louisville would tie it before 5 minutes passed in the second half, but never could mount a push to take control in one of the most hyped games since the 1983-84 season opener when No. 2 Kentucky topped No. 6 Louisville following the Cardinals' 1983 Final Four appearance.
If either of these clubs return to the Final Four this year, this game will be remembered, too.
"It was crazy out there," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "And I'm (just) a freshman."