Walk-on Contributions Help Louisville Exorcise Late-Game Demons Against Pittsburgh

Posted by Will Tucker on January 29th, 2013

Will Tucker is an RTC correspondent and Big East microsite writer. He filed this report after Monday night’s Louisville-Pittsburgh game.

Louisville endured a three-point shooting onslaught from Pitt down the stretch to hold on to a 64-61 victory on Monday night in the Yum! Center. The Panthers hit five of their eight threes in the final seven minutes, but the Cardinals made the necessary plays in the final possessions — demonstrating a resilience conspicuously absent in close losses to Syracuse and Georgetown. Most impressive was the fact that the Cardinals pulled out the win in spite of sudden attrition on its wings. Wayne Blackshear (sprained shoulder) and Kevin Ware (unspecified suspension) weren’t in the lineup, subtracting 38 reliable minutes per game from Rick Pitino’s rotation.

(Credit Andy Lyons)

Louisville’s Tim Henderson played 14 sound minutes off the bench (Credit: Andy Lyons)

Leading up to the game, the two teams appeared headed in vastly different directions. Louisville had lost three consecutive Big East gut-punches and was facing the possibility of a 4-4 record in conference play less than two weeks removed from a #1 ranking in the polls; Pittsburgh had won four straight, capped off by an emphatic 38-point win over DePaul. Rick Pitino’s team needed no extra motivation (nor anxiety) to get up for Pitt, but that’s exactly what they got when they learned in the past couple days that Blackshear and Ware would sit out.

The outlook was bleak on paper, with the eighth-most efficient offense in the country entering the Yum! Center. Who would defend Pitt’s Lamar Patterson and Tray Woodall, who were shooting 39% and 37% from beyond the arc, respectively? Louisville’s lineup was about to get smaller, and it had already allowed Big East foes to shoot more than 34% from outside (fourth worst in the league). Could UofL’s increasingly anemic offense survive the void left by Blackshear’s scoring, which accounts for 12% of their points in league play?

There was no obvious answer, but the simplest advice Gorgui Dieng could offer his teammates before the game was to leave it all on the court: “I said ‘Guys, whatever we do tonight, make sure you give a lot of energy… I don’t care what the outcome’s going to be, but let’s just play with a lot of energy.’” That message seemed to resonate, and the intensity Louisville displayed from the opening tip was a stark contrast to the listlessness written in the faces of some players during uninspired efforts against Villanova and Georgetown. With Russ Smith returning to the starting lineup and Luke Hancock resuming duties at the three, the Cards jumped out to a 10-point lead in as many minutes.

Once Hancock picked up two early fouls, Rick Pitino reached deep in his bench to replace him. Local walk-on junior Tim Henderson lost the ball on consecutive possessions before his coach got in his ear during a timeout. “He was really, really nervous,” Pitino recalled, “I said ‘Come on, man, you’re not a freshman.’” Henderson nailed a three-pointer a minute later to give the Cardinals their largest lead of the game, 30-18. When Russ Smith picked up his second foul, Pitino deployed a lineup that hadn’t played together outside of garbage time, with Henderson at the three and fellow walk-on Michael Baffour at shooting guard. Amazingly, that unit stymied Pittsburgh’s disciplined offense, forcing a turnover and shot clock violation on consecutive possessions before a Steven Adams tip-in at the halftime buzzer ended the drought. Those small contributions provided just enough relief of fatigue and foul trouble to allow the Cardinals to keep their core rotation on the floor in the second half. Henderson continued to spell Hancock periodically, and grabbed a pivotal rebound at the end of the game. Moreover, by avoiding his characteristic foul issues, Peyton Siva played a full 40 minutes, allowing Russ Smith to remain at the two-guard spot and minimizing the necessity to play Hancock’s backups at the same time.

It wasn’t a pretty win. At times, it was downright ugly. The two teams combined for more offensive (26) than defensive (19) rebounds several minutes into the second half, and nobody on Louisville’s team could slow down Talib Zanna and Adams on the glass. Approximately 41% of Pitt’s 61 points came on second chance opportunities, to the vexation of Louisville fans dreading another last-minute collapse. The three UofL wings only combined for eight points and five rebounds, but they did enough on the defensive end to help their team over the hump. Hancock, who recorded three steals, said the team paid special attention to guarding farther beyond the arc against Pitt: “We felt like if we don’t give up the three and we play good defense, we’re going to be fine.” And Baffour –– affectionately dubbed “Dark Slime” by his roommate Russ Smith, said he’d been getting a lot more time in practice in the past two days and embraced “whatever role coach wanted me to play.”

When Gorgui Dieng suffered a wrist injury in November that sidelined him for four weeks, his team adapted and ultimately learned how to win in a variety of unfamiliar contexts. At that point in the season, Louisville was undefeated and coming off a big win against Missouri in the Battle 4 Atlantis. There was much more at stake on Monday night, and more unlikely replacements waiting in the wings. To be sure, beating Pitt without two players at the same position was no small task. Blackshear is slated to return this weekend for the game against Marquette, and his team still shows major deficiencies in boxing out and finishing at the rim. But the way the Cardinals exorcised some late-game demons and learned they could play physical defense with their reserves will pay dividends down the line in the unglamorous Big East gauntlet.

Will Tucker (124 Posts)

Kentucky native living and working in Washington, D.C. Fan of tacos, maps, and the 30-second shot clock. Not a fan of comments sections, bad sportswriting.

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