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Reinforcements arrive: Cards use late rally to defeat Miami, but Pitino still concerned about defense


By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — Louisville’s basketball team welcomed back Quentin Snider, Mangok Mathian and Deng Adel with a gritty 71-66 come-from-behind victory over Miami Saturday afternoon in the KFC Yum! Center, but it came attached with both a warning and a pledge from their coach.

With an eye on the rapidly-approaching NCAA Tournament, Rick Pitino cautioned that the No. 4 Cardinals (20-5, 8-4 ACC) need to shape up in a certain aspect of their game if they want to stick around for awhile in the Big Dance. And what would that area be? You guessed it.

“If we play the type of defense we played tonight, we’ll get knocked out in the first round,” Pitino said. “But we’ll have it by the time the tournament starts. We’ll get it, I’m positive of that.”

For much of the game, Miami (16-8, 6-6) was successful taking UofL defenders off the bounce on drives to the basket or running plays that resulted in layups or dunks. The Hurricanes had 22 points in the paint in the first half alone and they finished with 34. They also shot 52 percent in the half after making 13 of their first 19 shots.

“Miami said we’re going to pick certain guys out, create movement and we’re going to take that guy,” Pitino said. “I’ve been telling all of you all along that we’re a weak defensive team. I think tonight was the final straw for our players to see it. This was a great lesson.”

“We kept getting beat on the first dribble in isolation, so it’s just one of those things where it’s a pride thing at this point,” guard Donovan Mitchell said. “There’s no excuse for that. You’ve got to be able to guard one on one and we all struggled with that, and I think we’ll focus on it going into Syracuse.”

Nevertheless, with the way the game developed early, Pitino was thrilled to escape with a win and stay in the thick of the ACC race ahead of Monday’s visit to Syracuse (16-10, 8-4), which is unbeaten in six league games in the Carrier Dome, but had a five-game winning streak snapped Saturday with an 80-75 loss at Pittsburgh.

Struggling on offense as well as defense, UofL fell behind 8-0, trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and didn’t take its first lead until just 5:18 remained. The Cards started 2-of-12 and Mitchell missed six of his eight shots in the period, which ended with the hosts at 32.0 percent (8-25).

Louisville finally started clicking at both ends of the court in the final 10 minutes, with Snider swishing back-to-back 3-pointers from each corner to help narrow a 44-35 deficit to 44-43. Then, trailing 53-48 with 7:03 left, the Cards exploded for a 13-0 run and a 61-53 lead at the 3:56 mark.

“Everybody was locking in together on defense and those quick stops generated our offense,” Mathiang said. “Coach always tells us, once we get stops scoring is gonna be easier for us and today kind of showed it.”

But the Canes weren’t quite ready to head south, storming back to tie it at 61-61. Snider returned the lead to UofL with two free throws, then drilled a deep 3-pointer with the shot clock about to expire for a 66-61 advantage with 39.7 seconds left. After that, the Cards held on by hitting 4-of-5 free throws.

“95-90 percent of teams lose this game,” Pitino said. “You don’t win this game because they totally outplayed us. They were the better basketball team tonight, but we showed incredible character to win. We’re real proud of that, probably our best game of the season in terms of character because we didn’t have it tonight in any phase of the game.

“Three or four of our guys didn’t play physical. We let them go by us on straight line drives. We didn’t rebound well. We didn’t shoot well. We didn’t pass well. But then when the game was on the line we did all of the above.”

Snider, returning to action for the first time in six games due to a strained hip flexor, showed signs of his long layoff in the first half, missing all three of his shots and committing two turnovers against one assist. But he heated up in the second half, scoring 11 of his 13 points in and also finishing with four assists.

“I didn’t play my best,” said Snider, who started and played 33 minutes. “I think my wind’s back, it’s just the rhythm of the game, little things like using the pick and roll, I went two feet wide. Attacking the paint, I thought I did an okay job on that. I’m just trying to get the rhythm of the game back. I felt great, not too sore, but I could tell I was rusty.”

Said Mitchell, who led UofL with 18 points: “Q was kind of deferring a little bit early, but once he started to be more aggressive it was back to the old Q and he hit a big, big shot on the left wing.”

Mathiang and Adel, who were coming off a one-game suspension for missing curfew, also made big contributions. Deng got 18 points, five rebounds and three assists with no turnovers. Mathiang had eight rebounds and seven points.

And Pitino praised Jaylen Johnson, who grabbed several key rebounds during Louisville’s comeback and finished with eight, along with 10 points, two steals and a block.

“Jaylen made the great lunch pail plays when we needed him,” Pitino said.

FAN ARRESTED–During a timeout midway through the first half, a fan ran onto the court and started evesdropping on the Miami huddle. He was quickly tackled, handcuffed by Metro Police officers and taken off the court. He was later charged with five counts, including assault and disorderly conduct.

“There was a little bit of commotion in our huddle and I glanced up and there was someone there, I believe in red,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “We don’t normally wear red. It wasn’t a Miami fan.”

CARDS-CATS ON COLLISION COURSE?

In the first seedings revealed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee Saturday afternoon, Louisville and Kentucky were booked for a possible Sweet Sixteen showdown in the East Regional in Madison Square Garden. The Cards were listed as a No. 2 seed, UK No. 3.

Villanova was the No. 1 overall seed and was placed in the East, with the other top seeds being Kansas, Baylor and Gonzaga.

This is the first time the committee has previewed the bracket, and it will continue to do so the rest of this month and the first week in March.

“Those top four teams are having tremendous seasons,” said Mark Hollis, Michigan State athletics director and the committee chairman. “But as we know, in college basketball things change quickly. There are more than 1,300 games left before Selection Sunday, so how these teams are seeded and where they will utlimately be sent to play in the NCAA Tournament remains a mystery.”


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