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Mathiang has a senior moment, leads Cards to victory and a double bye in upcoming ACC tourney

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE–At 24 years of age, Mangok Mathiang is the senior citizen of the Louisville basketball team, which is a constant source of amusement for his teammates, who call him the “old guy.”

Saturday they should have called him their savior because without a watershed performance from the good-natured, 6-foot-10 Australian they almost certainly would have gone down to defeat.

Playing like the veteran he is, the senior center kept No. 8/7 UofL (24-7, 12-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) in the game in the first half, then provided another spark late to help turn back No. 19/13 Notre Dame 71-64 in front of 22,612 fans in the KFC Yum! Center.

Mathiang (right), who was a starter at the beginning of the season, but has primarily come off the bench during the ACC campaign, scored a career-high 18 points — 12 above his average — and also had a game-best 11 rebounds (UofL Athletics Photo)

The win in the regular-season finale, assured Louisville of a top-four finish in the ACC and a double bye in the league tournament that begins Tuesday in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. UofL will make its debut on Thursday against an opponent that couldn’t be determined until all the weekend games were completed.

Mathiang, who was a starter at the beginning of the season, but has primarily come off the bench during the ACC campaign, scored a career-high 18 points — 12 above his average — and also had a game-best 11 rebounds as UofL clobbered the Irish on the boards 44-27. It was only his fourth career double-double in 111 games.

“Mango was everywhere,” said guard Quentin Snider, who dished out six assists. “He carried us in the first half, defense, rebounding, scoring. It was fun watching him.”

“Mango did a lot of things and gave us a tremendous lift with a great basketball game,” UofL coach Rick Pitino said.

It was all the more gratifying because the outburst came on Senior Day when Mathiang and UofL’s two other departing upperclassmen — guards David Levitch and Tony Hicks — were honored in traditional pre-game ceremonies.

“It’s a great way to go out,” Mathiang said. “It felt great to perform the way I did today. It was important to go out there and give it my all. I’m typically always an emotional guy, but just knowing this was my last hurrah in the place I became a man made it that much sweeter. The game was very intense, so I wasn’t really thinking too much about anything except the next play, the next defensive stop.”

After entering the game at the first media timeout with 14 1/2 minutes left in the first half, Mathiang went on to score 12 of his points the remainder of the period, hitting 5-of-7 shots. He scored on jump hooks, putbacks and slick moves that the Irish couldn’t defend. Otherwise, the Cards were a mere 5-of-17 in the half, which ended with them clinging to a 30-27 lead.

“I just went out there and kept attacking the basket,” Mathiang said.

“He got some great angles on us,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We probably didn’t do a very good job of contesting him early and he was on that backboard. He had six offensive rebounds; that’s where he hurt us.”

Mathiang got more help in the second half, especially down the stretch. With the game hanging in the balance, Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel all hit clutch shots. None was bigger than Adel’s, which came after the Irish had trimmed a 61-53 deficit to 64-62 with 49 seconds remaining.

Taking a pass from Snider and finding himself open on the right wing, Adel swished a 3-pointer to give UofL a little more breathing room with 36 seconds left.

“What a great college game,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “It had an NCAA Tournament feel to it. A couple guys made big, big shots for Louisville when they needed to. Adel’s three over a Steve Vasturia challenge was the difference.”

Before the key bucket, Adel was 1-of-7, not that it mattered. “I know the shots weren’t falling today; I was pretty heavy on my legs most of the game,” he said. “But when the opportunity presents itself you’ve got to be a man and step up and take the shot. I had to take that shot.”

Mitchell led all scorers with 20 points, while Snider had 15 of his 17 points in the second half when he was perfect, hitting all five of his shots, including four from beyond the arc.

The Cards also clamped down defensively late, limiting Notre Dame to four baskets in the final 7 1/2 minutes as they snapped the Irish’s six-game winning streak and avenged a 77-70 loss in South Bend on Jan 4.

“It was hard to score against Louisville’s defense,” Brey said. “They’re really hard to deal with with their length. Their size wears on you over 40 minutes and their frontline did wear us down a little bit.”

Vasturia and Mike Farrell, who had combined for 46 points on 15-of-30 shooting in the earlier game, managed just 19 and were 7-of-21.

“Down the stretch we did some really good things defensively with the game on the line,” Pitino said. “It was excellent defense, and offense, when the game was on the line and that is what you want to see. I can’t say enough about Snider, Mitchell and Adel and how big they came up with the game on the line.”

To cap the successful afternoon on the court, when Mathiang walked into the locker room afterwards, he and Adel found that their cell phones, which had been confiscated by Pitino as partial punishment for breaking curfew last month, had been returned.

“Both of those guys are now getting everything back,” Pitino said. “They’ve been on (lockdown) for the last month, so they finally get a chance to go out and they’ll probably do something stupid and be suspended for the ACC Tournament.”

Told about Pitino’s joking remark, Adel said, “No, we’ve got to stay out of trouble from now on. That was an immature mistake and we don’t want to get our phones taken away again.”

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