In front of the largest crowd of the season, with the 2012-13 team back for a 10-year reunion, Louisville men’s basketball put together its best performance of the season Saturday with an 83-73 victory over Clemson at the KFC Yum! Center.
The Cardinals (4-23, 2-14 ACC) led for nearly 29 minutes and were in control throughout the second half of the win over a Clemson team battling for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
But there was too much on Louisville’s side Saturday.
That included the season-high 15,157 fans in attendance, as well as the historic 2013 team whose return included iconic names like Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell.
“They couldn’t have picked a better night where the fan support was unbelievable,” UofL head coach Kenny Payne said. “They got to do it in front of a championship team. The championship team is in the locker room with them right now celebrating. They picked a great night, unbelievable night, unbelievable fan support, unbelievable energy in the building. The way they played, the fight they played with. We’re going to make mistakes, but we can make up for it with effort and energy.”
Senior guard El Ellis led Louisville with 28 points – giving him 82 total points over the last three games – while junior forward JJ Traynor had a career night with 16 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
Redshirt freshman forward Mike James joined the pair in double figures with 13 points.
“Earlier in the year, I was shooting the ball well so I kind of fell in love with the 3 and that’s not really my game,” Traynor said. “I can shoot the ball, but lately I’ve been trying to get stuff around the paint first and then work my way out to the 3. I think having that mindset and then the coaches want me to bring a lot of energy on defense and I feel like that leads to my offense.”
The teams traded the lead throughout the first half before the Cardinals went on a crucial 11-2 run, turning a 32-28 deficit into a 39-34 lead with seven seconds left in the half. Louisville led 39-36 at the break.
Clemson (19-8, 11-5) reclaimed the lead at 44-43 early in the second half, but the Cardinals dropped the hammer from there, using a 12-2 burst to go up 55-46 on a posterizing and-1 dunk by Traynor with 14:20 to go.
James gave Louisville its largest lead with a bucket to make it 66-52 with 7:38 remaining, but the Tigers didn’t go away. They countered with a 9-0 run to get within five at 66-61 with 3:45 on the clock, then got it to 70-66 at 2:29.
Louisville had the final word, however, as the Cards followed with a basket from James in the lane and a putback dunk by sophomore forward Brandon-Huntley Hatfield to ice it.
“We took a big step today,” James said. “I’ve got to give credit to El and Jae’Lyn (Withers). They really pulled us together every time it was a dead ball. When they were making that run, just told us to stay calm. I’ve got to give credit to the coaches too. They really coached us through it. This is something that we can carry on to the next games. When we have leads, just stay calm. They’re going to make a run; they’re going to try to get back into it. Just try to get back to the stuff that we were doing that got us to the lead.”
Louisville dominated the boards, 37-26, and made 26 of 28 free throws – the third-best performance in program history on at least 25 attempts.
The Cardinals shot 51% from the field overall and held Clemson to just 4-for-24 from beyond the arc. PJ Hall had 28 points and eight rebounds to lead the Tigers.
“I feel like everybody has that extra confidence,” Ellis said. “Guys are getting to their spot, and guys are just out there playing and not thinking – I feel like that’s the biggest thing from the start of the season until now. I’m just proud of my teammates. They go out there and they fight, and we practice hard. We’re not having a great year, but we just continue to fight, and I feel like that’s what’s continuing to keep us in games.”
The Cardinals face a quick turnaround with a Monday road trip to Duke at 7 p.m. ET. The game will air on ESPN.