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Pitino has Vitale to thank for ‘Superman’ McMahon; King to miss Va. Tech game; Hicks’ return delayed

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE–Just when Louisville’s basketball team was approaching full health, the No. 8/7 Cardinals (21-5, 9-4) suffered another blow on two fronts heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech (18-7, 7-6) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the KFC Yum! Center.

First, freshman small forward V.J. King suffered a thigh bruise in practice and will not play against the Hokies, coach Rick Pitino said Friday afternoon, adding that he is only expected to miss one game.

Then x-rays showed that Tony Hicks’ broken hand hasn’t healed sufficiently for him to return to practice Monday, as expected, and the graduate transfer will be out another two weeks.

Ryan McMahon is from Sarasota, Fla., and his family lives near ESPN announcer Dick Vitale, who recommended him to Pitino. Pitino watched McMahon play twice and began recruiting him. (UofL Athletics Photo)

King, UofL’s best outside shooter, is shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range while averaging 6.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game. With starting forward Deng Adel suspended for one game, King scored a career-high 24 points against Virginia, but has played only 12 minutes in the two games since.

Pitino said little-used walk-on Jay Henderson will probably get some of King’s minutes. Henderson, a 6-4 sophomore, has played just 27 minutes in 13 games.

“Jay Henderson is going to have to step up for this game,” Pitino said. “He hasn’t played much this season, but hopefully he will.”

Other options would include Adel adding to his 29-minutes-per-game average or a three-guard rotation that would feature subs David Levitch and Ryan McMahon, the unlikely hero of Monday’s 76-72 overtime win at Syracuse.

If needed, maybe McMahon, a six-foot redshirt freshman sharpshooter, can reprise his Carrier Dome role as Superman for the Cards.

After not playing a single minute in regulation, McMahon scored seven points in the OT, hitting a key 3-pointer, putting back a rebound for his first two-point basket of the season, then making two clutch free throws in the final seconds to clinch the victory.

“He put on his Superman outfit and won the game for us,” Pitino said afterwards. “Ryan, no matter what the situation is, never met a shot he wouldn’t take.”

McMahon is from Sarasota, Fla., and his family lives near ESPN announcer Dick Vitale, who recommended him to Pitino. Pitino watched McMahon play twice and began recruiting him.

“I’ve got to give Dick credit,” Pitino says. “He discovered him and we listened to him. Ryan was being recruited by all lower Division 1 schools and (Vitale) says, ‘I guarantee he can play for you.'”

Vitale has said he actually recommended McMahon to many coaches and Pitino “was the only one to come see him play and liked his shooting and winners attitude.”

McMahon says he was just grateful for the opportunity to play at such a high-profile program for a Hall of Fame coach.
“I spent all last year picking Q’s (Quentin Snider) brain and Trey Lewis’ about playing point guard and how I could do that better, because I knew that’s what I’m going to have to play here,” McMahon said earlier this season. “So I’ve tried to study and learn what I can do on the court to try to help make guys better, and that’s a big challenge.”

Although he averages just 2.7 ppg, McMahon had scored 15 points against Pittsburgh last month, but that came in a 106-51 rout. His performance at Syracuse was in a do-or-die situation with leading scorer Donovan Mitchell having fouled out.

“Coach just called my name and I’m always ready to play,” McMahon said afterwards. “I’m just thinking about my teammates all the time and what we could do to get this win because it’s a tough play to play and it’s a big win for us.”

Who knows if McMahon will get another chance in a tight game this season because he is still lacking on defense. But if he does, Pitino certainly has confidence in him at the offensive end.

“A lot of our guys, they miss a few shots it bothers them,” Pitino says. “Ryan misses a few, it does not bother him and he’s got a lot of moxie. He’s a very confident young man in his abilities. He’ll go out there believing there’s nobody better on this court who can outshoot me.”

After the game, Pitino got a phone message from Vitale telling him, ‘I told you so,’ and urging the coach to play McMahon more. But that probably won’t happen until he becomes better on defense.

“He’s such a great shooter, so anytime you can shoot the ball that well you just have to make him a better defensive player, and he’s got to learn to play the point a little better,” Pitino says. “But he’s very crafty, gets to the rim, gets fouled, very intelligent, great desire, a basketball junike. And that’s a big key — if you’re a basketball junkie with us you’re going to get a lot better.”

Louisville has won five of its last six games and positioned itself to have a solid chance at the regular season ACC title heading into the last five games, with the pivotal one being next Wednesday’s trip to league-leading North Carolina (22-5, 10-3). The Cards are tied for second at 9-4 with Florida State and Duke. Notre Dame and Virginia are still in contention with five losses each.

“It’s an interesting conference. It’s anybody’s ballgame,” Pitino says. “Every game has importance to everyone. With us, it’s (NCAA) seeding, trying to make the top four (in the ACC) to get a double bye. So there’s a lot at stake.”

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