CINCINNATI- Louisville was dead in the water. We had rehearsed, watched and all but played in this movie before. A late game blunder, a fail to finish, those all appeared to be once again in the Cards. Louisville had everything going against them. The Cards we’re playing in front of a crowd that was overwhelming. There yelled jokes about Chane Behanan, held up posters that mocked their coach, and were such a raucous group that would match any Arena in College Basketball. UofL shot brick upon brick at the free throw line, having their major post threat going a woeful 5-12 from the stripe. The Cards couldn’t stop the only Bearcat that could hurt them in Sean Kilpatrick who proceeded to drop 28 points, 22 of them coming in the second. Cincinnati wanted vengeance against Louisville, the Cards that had everything they wanted, the ACC, a National Championship, the Keg of Nails. And this was quite possibly the last time the two would meet.
UofL 2013-14 doesn’t win those games. The UofL we had seen leading up to this game was not supposed to win this type of game. Teams that are desperate for victory are dangerous, teams desperate to prove themselves to others can be more dangerous — that’s what Louisville (23-4, 12-2) was. That’s what helped them defeat Cincinnati (24-4, 13-2) 58-57 on Saturday afternoon.
“It was very tough [in the second half] we missed defensive assignments, we gave up a lot of second chance points. In the end, we got back to what we’re doing, we stuck it out and we came out with a big win,” Montrezl Harrell explained after the game
All will talk about Russ Smith, maybe some will even take a second glance at their Wooden Award Ballot that has Doug McDormett marked in sharpie. Of course they should, he overcame a mental challenge on a 3-10 shooting night and made three incredible plays down the stretch capped off by his game winner from 12-feet on a very unfreshmen like pass from Terry Rozier.
“I tried to take the ball out of bounds so Wayne [Blackshear] could already be down court,” Rozier, the freshmen who finished with an efficient 11 points noted. “We tried to a do a ‘power screen’ with him because if they both bite on Russ [Smith] then Wayne Blackshear would be open for a shot. I guess they kind of switched on it and Russ drove and I was wide open and ready for the shot but I saw him wide open. I know he’s more comfortable with this level than I am.”
“I came down and tried to find Terry [Rozier], Coach always says make one pass and I did,” Russ Smith said of the play that sent him into tears after. “He was unselfish enough and smart enough to recognize the double team. He kicked it to me and I made the shot, I’m just happy this year I didn’t shoot from half-court. It felt really good leaving my hands, I don’t know if it looked good to you but it felt good. It would have been an air ball or it would have went straight into the net.”
Through the net it went. With it went Louisville’s National Championship contention validity, Louisville gaining it’s first Top Ten win and a reminder not to count these Cards out. For some that might be where the story stops, but Louisville proved why it should be a strong contender to make a third straight trip to the Final Four.
Simply it was all about defense – incredible defense. The very thing that Montrezl Harrell had told me separated this team from the one that cut down the nets in 2013 after losing to the Bearcats on the first go-around. The game was bloody, not in a literal sense but in a way that would make you think so after seeing one possession. Louisville held the Bearcats to 28.4% shooting, a woeful 68.1% offensive rating all with trapping mechanisms that reminded you of 2013. They had managed to malign the Bearcats and held them to just 19 points in the first half.
“I told them the better defensive team is gonna win this game, I said we gotta win this game with defense,” Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino explained. “We did down the stretch and they went to free throw line, as All-Americans do and made their free throws do the stretch.”
The biggest play of the game came in the second half, it came from the player that has became in a disappearing act in the biggest game of the season. It was a block from Wayne Blackshear, his only stat mark in the box score minus a foul and a rebound, but it couldn’t have shaped the outcome more. At the 46 second mark, Titus Rubles made a drive to the basket to extend the Bearcat lead to three — Blackshear was there to dispatch it. Louisville returned with a Montrezl Harrell layup that started the final frenzy. In the words of Rick Pitino it ‘saved the game’ for Louisville.
That was what you expect from Louisville, finding ways to win on defense, you know that because its been the calling card of the Cardinals under Rick Pitino. But surprisingly it had disappeared from this Cardinals team in their blunders against Memphis, Kentucky and the others. It hadn’t been there but it appears to be rendering it’s head again. It’s scary for America or it least it should be. The last time, Louisville ‘found themselves’ they won 15-straight en route to a National Championship.
It’s February and Louisville is finding themselves again. They appear to be able to take blows, stumble but counter-punch again with relentless, suffocating defense. At least that’s what happened on Saturday. If it happens, if it continues, things are going to start getting really fun again for Louisville.
“We’re becoming a very good team, if we start making free throws, we’re gonna be a hell of a team,” Pitino noted. “And we’re gonna fix that.”
While most of the College Basketball world seems to be spending their time clamoring on individual teams ‘potential’, Louisville is finally showing there’s.
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