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Despite short-handed loss to Cavaliers, Cards still in good shape in conference championship race

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — With a Big Monday victory at Virginia, Louisville’s basketball team could have remained hot on the Heels, staying within one game of North Carolina (9-2), the leaders in the Atlantic Coast Conference race.

Didn’t happen, due at least in part to a couple of late suspensions that left the already-shorthanded Cardinals even more depleted against an opponent that would have been a major challenge even with a full roster.

Nevertheless, the 71-55 defeat in John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville wasn’t necessarily a fatal blow to UofL’s title hopes and the Cardinals (19-5, 7-4) are certainly still in decent shape to finish in the top four and earn a first-round bye in the league tournament.

Rick Pitino didn’t have much to say to the media following Louisville’s road loss to Virginia (UofL Athletics Photo)

That is, if their second-and-third-leading scorers, center Mangok Mathiang and wing Deng Adel, are allowed to return for Saturday’s 2 p.m. game against Miami (15-7, 5-5) in the KFC Yum! Center. Starting guard Quentin Snider, who has missed the last six games with a hip flexor injury, could also be available for that game.

Mathiang and Adel were left at home when the team traveled to Virginia for violating curfew Saturday night after the Cards returned home from their 90-67 win at Boston College, where Mathiang had scored a season-high 16 points and Adel had gotten a career-best 19 points.

A starter in 22 games, Adel had scored in double figures in the last five outings while averaging 13.8 ppg and shooting 52.1 percent from the field. Mathiang had also played well in the last five games, averaging 12.8 ppg, 7.8 rebounds and shooting 67 percent.

The university’s release didn’t specify how long the suspension would last and Pitino was in no mood to address the issue in brief post-game remarks after losing to Virginia (18-5, 8-3) for the fifth time in six games and fourth in a row.

After answering two questions outside UofL’s locker room, disdaining a trip to the interview room as required by ACC post-game rules, Pitino cut off a question by WDRB’s Eric Crawford about Mathiang, saying curtly, “I don’t want to hear. . .don’t even mention his name to me. That’s all I’ve got. Thank you.”

Probably the next chance to hear Pitino’s comments on the suspensions will come either during his weekly radio show Wednesday night or a weekend preview press conference Friday, if he has one.

As for the ACC race, the Cards — who had won seven of eight to move into a third-place tie with Virginia — fell into a tie for fourth with Syracuse (15-9, 7-4), who they will face next Monday night in the Carrier Dome.

Among the seven teams still considered serious contenders for the regular season championship, Louisville’s remaining schedule falls somewhere in the middle in regard to degree of difficulty. Other than Syracuse, the Cards’ only other road game against a contender will come at North Carolina on Feb. 22. Otherwise, they’ll travel to Wake Forest (14-9, 5-6) and get Miami (15-7, 5-5), Virginia Tech (16-5, 5-5) and Notre Dame (17-7, 6-5) at home. Their remaining foes are 44-31 in conference play.

By far the team facing the biggest challenge is North Carolina, which must play Duke and Virginia twice each in addition to hosting Louisville. The Heels’ other games are on the road at NC State (3-8) and Pittsburgh (1-9). Duke also has a tough task because in addition to UNC twice, the Blue Devils have road games at Virginia and Syracuse and a home contest with Florida State (8-3).

A win at Virginia would obviously have given UofL’s title hopes a major boost, and for a half it looked as if the Cards might have discovered an antidote to what Pitino had called the Cavs’ “kryptonite” despite playing with just seven scholarship players on a court where the hosts were 38-2 in ACC games over the last three seasons.

Louisville led 34-32 at halftime after what Pitino termed an “almost perfect” 20 minutes in which his game plan to use high ball screens, space the court and drive resulted in 46.7 percent shooting. But the second half was a disaster as Virginia opened with a 10-0 surge that snowballed into a 20-3 run for a 54-39 cushion with 10 1/2 minutes remaining. Game over.

“We took really good shots in the first half, moved the basketball,” Pitino said. “In the second half, we reverted back to AAU basketball, just jacking up shots. We’re down 12 or 14 points and we tried to rush it to get back in the game instead of taking our time, and that is an inexperienced team. We played great in the first half and did a lot of things we wanted to do. In the second half, we couldn’t make shots and we played poorly at the defensive end. But they tried their best, and when we’re at full strength we’re a pretty good basketball team. So I can’t fault them at all.”

In the second half, UofL hit just 6-of-24 shots (25 percent), including 1-of-7 from 3-point range, while the Cavs shot 59 percent (13-of-22) and hit 12-of-17 2-pointers, mostly on layups and dunks that enabled them to outscore the visitors 32-22 in the paint. Just as important, for the game Virginia destroyed the Cards on the boards, 38-19, and hit 18-of-20 free throws.

Going into the game, Pitino had named the three keys to victory for his team as shooting well, keeping the Cavs off the foul line and equaling them on defense. The Cards did none of those, and didn’t rebound either. Part of the rebounding deficit could be attributed to the absence of Mathiang, who had been their leading rebounder of late. But 6-9 Jaylen Johnson, the team’s top rebounder on the season, played 24 minutes without managing a single carom and 7-0 Anas Mahmoud got just one in 35 minutes.

“Thirty-eight to 19 on the boards kind of says it all,” assistant coach David Padgett said, filling in for Pitino on his post-game radio show. “Anas and Jaylen getting one rebound in (a combined) 59 minutes. . .we can’t have that lack of production by our front line and be successful.”

If there was a bright spot in the game, it was freshman V.J. King, who scored a career-high 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. Leading scorer Donovan Mitchell, who was on fire the past two weeks, had another tough night against Virginia. He was 3-of-11 in the Cards’ 61-53 loss on Dec. 28 and 6-of-17 Monday, missing all five of his 3-pointers while scoring 16 points, his lowest total in four games.

“We just got out-toughed,” Mitchell said. “That’s pretty much it. They basically just punked us, to be honest. They were the first to the floor. They even beat us on the fast break, and they’re a slower-paced team, so when that happens you know something’s wrong. In the first half we were moving the ball and playing like a team. In the second half, we played completely different. We were playing like a bunch of individuals.”

Mitchell, whom Pitino named a captain to replace Mathiang after the latter’s suspension, indicated he may call a team meeting before Saturday’s game to try and make sure the Cards have left any bad habits or lack of focus in Charlottesville.

“There’s a lot that needs to be said,” Mitchell said. “I feel personally that we just played soft in the second half, and that’s unacceptable. We let them move us around, didn’t make rotations. We let the crowd get to us. The way we played in that second half can’t happen and won’t happen again.”

NCAA SEEDING–Barring a total meltdown, UofL appears headed for a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Going into the Virginia game, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected the Cards as a No. 2 seed. We’ll know more Saturday when the NCAA selection committee for the first time will provide a look at its top 16 seeds.

The top four teams in each region will be revealed during a March Madness preview show on CBS, similar to the College Football Playoff committee releasing its rankings weekly late in the season.

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