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Louisville’s Ryan McMahon’s small stature eclipsed by his outsized value to Cardinals offense

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

Listed at an unimposing six feet and with limited athletic ability, compared to his teammates and most opposing players, Ryan McMahon is nevertheless capable of having an outsized impact for Louisville’s basketball.

He proved it Tuesday night in leading the Cardinals (4-2) to an 82-78 overtime upset win against No. 9 Michigan State in the raucous KFC Yum! Center. The junior guard is a role player whose role is to come off the bench and provide U of L with a deadly force from the perimeter and nearly perfect free throw shooting.

Those skills were on full display against the Spartans (5-2) when he scored a career-high 24 points, hitting 4-of-7 3-pointers and 12-of-13 free throws – remarkably, with all the latter coming in the last 5:43 of regulation and the OT – including a pressurized 4-of-4 in the final 14 seconds when the Cards were scrambling to hold Michigan State at bay.

But in his post-game interview, McMahon was fretting over his only miss, which came at 3:37 in overtime.

Ryan McMahon’s performance against Michigan State helped Louisville win in overtime Tuesday night. (Louisville Athletics photo)

“Yeah, I missed that one, which I’m frustrated about,” he said. “Don’t know what went wrong on that one, but luckily I was able to knock down the other ones.”

Luck really has nothing to do with it. McMahon is now 22-of-23 at the foul line on the season and 39-of-48 (.848) for his career because he practices on free throws daily, including shooting 100 on the morning of game days.

Tuesday morning he made 96-of-100. His best day has been 99-of-100, so he’s still searching for perfection.

“My mind probably wanders off for one free throw or something,” he said.

Not often, obviously. Like most good free throw shooters, he has a consistent method when he goes to the line.

“I try to do my routine every single time,” McMahon said. “Deep breath, walk up to the line. Deep breath, dribble-dribble, deep breath, knock it down. Try not to think about the moment too much. Try to think about other things, kind of doing my routine – and sure enough it goes in more often than it doesn’t.”

So often that he has a good shot at breaking LaBradford Smith’s school career free throw percentage record of .866 from 1987-91.

McMahon had been struggling lately from 3-point range, going 2-of-9 in his previous three games, but he hit his first attempt 30 seconds after entering the game at the 13:33 mark of the first half and was off and rolling.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo credited McMahon with having “unlimited range,” but also added that he was able to score so frequently because “nobody guarded him.”

McMahon offered a different version and noted that his success beyond the arc opened opportunities for him to drive and draw fouls.

“Saw the first one go in, then saw the third one go in and I went to the bench and I was like, ‘They’re really all over me. I have to look to drive when I get the ball,'” he said. “And sure enough, the next time I got the ball I drove and they fouled me. So they were on high alert to kind of run me off the line. I realized that and took advantage of it.

“My range is pretty deep. I practice a lot of those shots every day. I get pushed out further and further. Then once I get pushed out to a certain spot, I’m like, ‘All right, this is just so much space I can take you off the dribble.’ So that’s when you saw me putting the ball on the floor and drawing fouls.”

Because of the need for a quicker player on defense down the stretch, McMahon was shuffled in and out of the game in overtime, replaced five times in the last 3:13 by graduate transfer Khwan Fore. But he said he didn’t mind, and the disruptions certainly didn’t hurt his rhythm at the foul line.

“I try not to think about, ‘Oh, they don’t want me on defense,'” McMahon said, affecting a moan. “Or, ‘They’re putting me back in just for offense.’ I just try to think about being an impact on the game as positively as I can. I’m not dumb. I know Khwan is a quicker guard than me, a better defender. I’m working on my defense every day, but I don’t feel any shame in them taking me out and putting in a better defender. We’re playing to win.”

It’s a well-known story that McMahon landed at UofL because he was recommended to former coach Rick Pitino by ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. Both Vitale and McMahon are residents of Sarasota, Fla., and after the game Vitale used Twitter to compliment the native son: “Star of stars is a kid from Sarasota that no one thought could play D-1 hoops.”

“My phone has been blowing up, but I’ll probably talk to him tomorrow,” McMahon said. “He’ll give me a call, or I’ll give him a call. He’s a great guy, a great friend. I’m sure he was pumped.”

Pitino also weighed in on Twitter.

“Awesome win last night for the Cards. Great preparation by Chris and I’m so proud of Ryan McMahon.”

McMahon Scores Major BPM

McMahon’s Box Plus/Minus (BPM), a boxscore-based metric for evaluating players’ quality and contribution to the team, was an incredible +15, best in the game. Next was Jordan Nwora (14 points, nine rebounds) at +12. No Michigan State player was above +6.

For an indication of how good McMahon’s BPM was — even though it was just for one game — the greatest seasons by LeBron James and Michael Jordan were between +12.5 and +13.0.

Mack Compliments Fans

UofL coach Chris Mack praised the crowd of 15,477 and said the fans deserved a major victory after several years of turmoil in the basketball program.

“The Louisville faithful have wanted a game like this, have wanted some good news around here,” Mack said. “And I’m happy we could deliver against a big-time opponent. Our crowd really helped us. The fans were awesome down the stretch in some of those pressure free throws that Michigan State couldn’t quite get at the end that possibly could have iced the game for them.”

The Spartans missed 3-of-4 free throws in the final minute of regulation and 2-of-4 in overtime, with two of the misses coming in bonus situations.

Izzo, though, wasn’t quite as impressed with the crowd.

“No insult, great crowd, but not any different than any other Big Ten crowd, that’s for sure,” he said. “I didn’t think the crowd bothered our players. I thought our players bothered our players.”

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at www.0926.russ.brown@gmail.com

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