LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- With the exception of the hold-your-breath wrist injury to center Gorgui Dieng, the University of Louisville basketball team returns to the mainland in better shape than it was when it left for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, where it fell to Duke 76-71 in Saturday night's championship game.
For the first time since Denny Crum's final season of 2000-01, U of L has faced two ranked opponents in November. The resulting insight, particularly from playing against a Duke team whose strength seems to be cashing in on opponent mistakes while making few of its own, should be something that instructs the Cardinals for a while.
But there's nothing to knock in U of L's effort, and little to knock in any event.
There were few surprises from this game, the first matchup between the programs since the 1986 NCAA title game and the first meeting between U of L's Rick Pitino and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski since their epic 1992 regional matchup that Christian Laettner ended in iconic fashion.
One surprise for U of L was this, and it was a positive one: Reserves Stephan Van Treese and Zach Price, playing for the injured Dieng, combined for 12 points and 15 rebounds, while playing decent defense and not turning the ball over once between them against seasoned Duke big man Mason Plumlee.
"We had a very big injury to our basketball team and it didn't affect us at all because of the play of Stephan Van Treese and Zach Price," Pitino said. "The key to beating Duke is you have to keep them off the foul line. We had a very good opportunity to keep it anybody's game but we missed our free throws and they made theirs. Sometimes the game comes down to very simple things. But our effort was extraordinary. As I told the guys, 'Your effort was extraordinary. You're a top 10 team in every sense of the word.'"
U of L shot 50 percent in the second half. But after playing fairly foul-free basketball in the first half, the Cards sent Duke to the line 24 times in the second, and the Blue Devils made 20 of those. In the end, U of L committed fewer fouls than Duke, but was outscored 23-9 from the line, and couldn't overcome that.
If you're looking for a key sequence, it came at the 8:18 mark of the second half. U of L had clawed back from an 11-point deficit to take a one-point lead on a Peyton Siva three-pointer. Russ Smith had keyed the comeback in his typical frenetic fashion, and for the next four minutes the game seemed as if it were ready to break in the Cardinals direction.
After a three by Quinn Cook, the Cards tied it again at 61 with 6:25 left, and had two possessions to add to it. But Wayne Blackshear missed a three, and Smith turned it over after Van Treese grabbed an offensive rebound. Siva stripped Seth Curry on the other end, then turned it over himself on the break.
This time, Duke responded with a Curry three on the break with 4:28 left.
"To me, that was the biggest play of the game," Krzyzewski said afterward.
Still, a Montrezl Harrell layup again pulled U of L within one, and the Cards got it back with a chance to take the lead yet again when it drew a charge of Tyler Thornton. But Smith missed a jumper, Price blocked a layup try by Thornton, then Ware had a layup try blocked and Thornton found Mason Plumlee all alone for a dunk on the break that put Duke back up by three with 3:25 left.
That handful of U of L offensive possessions, if it could've come away with scores instead of empty trips, might well have changed the game.
I thought back to last season's Final Four. The Cards tied the game with 9:12 left, and for the next three minutes it was a one-possession game. In those three minutes, the Cards had a turnover and three missed jumpers, and that was all the daylight a great Kentucky team needed to get the lead back out to four, then seven.
Even if U of L scores, it doesn't necessarily mean a win. But it would've made things interesting.
And if this becomes a team that gets better and more efficient in those few, critical possessions, it could be a team that reaches its championship goals.
Dieng's presence will help that. His absence not only hurt on defense -- Plumlee finished with 16 points and 7 rebounds but also had three turnovers and wasn't a major second-half factor -- but on offense.
Without Dieng, U of L had no high-post presence, which has been major offensive trigger all season. The result was that the offense became more reliant on drives. Despite shooting a respectable 45.5 percent from the field and 50 percent in the second half, the Cardinals dished out only six assists.
That'll be something the Cards have to compensate for until Dieng returns, which could be as early as next week if his wrist injury is just a sprain, or 4 to 6 weeks if the wrist is broken. He'll be evaluated when the team returns home Sunday.
Still, the Cards were in it against a Top 5 team without him, and without another source of offense. They'd been scoring more than a third of their points off opponent turnovers, but Duke simply doesn't make those kinds of mistakes. The Cards scored only 14 points off 14 Duke turnovers, which meant they had to create nearly everything out of their halfcourt offense, without Dieng. But Peyton Siva and Russ Smith nearly pulled that off.
"Smith and Siva are just outstanding," said Krzyzewski, who stopped both players to talk to them after the game.
Smith finished with 19 points and Siva added 17 on a night when the Cards needed them to score, and with Chane Behanan managing just 2 of 11 shooting. Harrell's 10 points in 20 minutes off the bench were the only other double-figure scoring effort.
"I thought Peyton did a good job," Pitino said. "I don't think Peyton is in real good shape. He had an injury and I thought he got tired. But I thought Peyton and Russ were brilliant through the entire tournament. . . . Russ is a very good free throw shooter, but he's working his ass off defensively, so much on pick and rolls, I don't even know if I could hit the rim if I was out there. He just works so hard on both ends of the floor it's exhausting. He has to do so much for us to win."
All five Duke starters scored in double figures, and all played 31 minutes or more. The Blue Devils deserve credit for gutting out that kind of effort in their third game in three days against a team known for wearing opponents down.
"The reason Duke was so good -- when you're a great foul shooting team and you don't turn the ball over much, you're tough to beat," Pitino said. "You've got to beat them. You've go to knock them out."
And U of L just couldn't find the knockout punch. It'll need to have more from Blackshear as the season goes on. It'll need more from Behanan, Hancock and Ware. It needs Dieng back.
But it's likely to get all those things. Pitino left the Bahamas more encouraged than discouraged. And he has good reason to be. His team still has great upside, and gave itself a chance even without one of its three most important players.
"We've got a lot of battles ahead, but we're not afraid of them because of the heart of this basketball team," Pitino said. "Just great effort. Super effort. It's just that they (Duke) don't miss free throws. They didn't last night, and they didn't' tonight.
". . . I'm excited for the future of this basketball team. I see great things happening for this team. I haven't always said that, but I'm very excited."