MEMPHIS (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino sat slumped in his chair after the University of Louisville limped away with an 87-78 victory at Memphis on Saturday.
"I'm as worn out as the players," Pitino said, but he was smiling.
The game was old-school U of L-Memphis, minus the thrown batteries and switchblades. A capacity-plus crowd of 18,392 at FedEx Forum was hyped and engaged from the opening tip, even if they threw nothing more threatening than an insult. One bunch of fans behind Pitino kept riding him for being "scared" to stay in the Big East. Postgame, he turned and said, "Do you ever pick up a newspaper?"
Here's the headline from Saturday's win at Memphis: The Cards are tough. They went into a difficult environment against an opponent primed to beat them, weathered injuries to several key players, including a couple sustained during the game, and walked away with a victory in a game that had all the earmarks of a throwaway loss in the opening 10 minutes when Memphis blew out to a 16-point lead.
"The effort was great," Pitino said. ". . . They have great heart. They're a fun team to coach. We made some vital mistakes in the first half. But this was as good a crowd as we've played in in quite some time."
It was only seven straight points by Peyton Siva that saved the Cards from hurtling further behind. And they managed, through Memphis turnovers and some patchwork defense, to claw back to within a basket before trailing by seven at the half.
Russ Smith sprained his ankle in the first half. Pitino had been very unhappy with him to that point anyway. The Cards spent all week putting in sets designed to get Chane Behanan the ball in the post. Then in the first half, they never looked for him. Pitino was incensed at halftime.
"Russ can win games for you," he said. "But he also showed (in the first half) that he can shoot you out of them. . . . I gave them a piece of my mind at halftime."
Memphis opened up the second half by making 7 of its first 9 shots, but this time U of L matched its offense. The Cards got big three-pointers from Behanan, Luke Hancock and Kevin Ware, and got aggressive offensively, driving to the hole to draw Memphis fouls.
The Tigers had five players foul out. Memphis coach Josh Pastner wouldn't address the foul situation after the game. U of L shot 46 free throws to Memphis' 20. Russ Smith, who went just 3 of 11 from the field, made 12 of 12 free throws by himself to finish with 19 points.
And Behanan began to become the kind of offensive presence Pitino wanted him to be, the kind he was down the stretch during last season's Final Four run.
After scoring just six first-half points, Behanan finished with 22 points, though he pulled down only three rebounds in the game.
"Chane's a great player, and he deserves all the credit he gets for the hard work to have the kind of game he had today," Pitino said.
U of L also got 19 points from Siva and 11 from Hancock in a situation where it absolutely had to have him.
Stephan Van Treese had not practiced in three days with a bruised kneecap but still gave the Cards nine important minutes. Behanan was banged up during the game but came back. Montrezl Harrell appeared to be limping in the second half. Gorgui Dieng went through warm-ups for the first time since breaking his wrist in the Bahamas, but isn't expected back until next Saturday.
"It just shows this team has a lot of heart and resilience," Hancock said. "Guys were just out there scrapping, doing whatever we had to do."
It was, frankly, a game that had all the looks of one U of L would be writing off because of injuries and an opponent that had been lying in wait. Instead, it was a hard-nosed road win against a big rival.
As he paused for a free throw with a 6-point lead and 17 seconds left, Smith heard a fan taunting him from behind mid court. The fan had said, "Your brother has more tattoos than you!" Smith stopped before shooting and turned, and made eye contact with the fans and nodded, before turning back to his work, and nailing his final free throw for a 17-point lead."
In this game, U of L stared down some adversity, then made its free throws and got out of there.
"My brother is nine years old," Smith said. "I just heard the guy and wanted to turn and see who it was."
It wasn't pretty, or very orthodox, but U of L dealt with injury, the crowd and one of its historic rivals, which bodes well for the tests ahead.