LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- For the past few weeks, Rick Pitino has sounded annoyed whenever he discussed his team's defense.
Wednesday night, annoyed became incensed.
A year ago, his University of Louisville basketball team ranked No. 6 in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.384). Shooting 40 percent against the Cards was an accomplishment. Heading into Wednesday night's game at Seton Hall, U of L opponents had shot 50 percent or better in five of the last 10 halves as the Cards' field goal defense dropped to 98th in the nation.
That number didn't sit well with Pitino, and when Seton Hall shot 42.9 percent in the first half to shave a 9-point deficit to only two at halftime in Newark's Prudential Center, he had seen enough.
He blew up, and his team's defense clamped down. The Cardinals held Seton Hall to 29 percent shooting in the second half to win 73-58.
But even cooling off a good-shooting Seton Hall team with its best defensive half since winning at College of Charleston on Dec. 4 didn't cool off their coach.
"They're going to learn to play that type of defense they played in the second half, all the time, or I'm going to kill every one of them," Pitino told Paul Rogers on his Nelligan Sports post game show. "I'm really upset. I'm not happy with the way we're playing defense. The second half is exactly what I expected. But I can't have a heart attack because they're not going to guard. I told them that. . . .
"We were either going to play better defensively or I was going to have a breakdown. I told the guys. You're either going to play championship defense, or you're going to be a Sweet Sixteen team and we can go home and plan for another year. I think they got the message loud and clear."
For the game, the Cards held a Seton Hall team that averaged just under nine three-pointers a game -- good for No. 13 in the nation -- to just four three-pointers on 16 attempts.
That's just one reason the Cards were able to win comfortably despite the lowest scoring night of the season from its starting backcourt.
All season, in fact, U of L has been powered by its guards. Peyton and Russ. Russ and Peyton. Russdiculous. PS3. Whatever you want to call them, U of L's offense was largely the Siva and Smith show. Coming into the matchup at Seton Hall, either Siva or Smith had led the Cards in scoring 10 times in 14 games.
But against Seton Hall, the tandem combined for a season-low18 points. It wasn't that they were playing poorly offensively (they combined for 15 assists -- not a season high) but they did not dictate the game with their scoring.
So for the Cards to prevail on the road with those two combining for a point total that one or the other has matched or topped individually in all but four of the Cardinals' game was a step forward.
Defense was one reason the Cards were able to do it. The other?
Even without injured Chane Behanan, the Cards' frontcourt moved to the forefront. In fact, for the first time all season, U of L's two leading scorers in a game were frontcourt players. Gorgui Dieng had season highs of 16 points and 14 rebounds and played his best overall game of the season. He was strong defensively, and after Pitino gave him a rest late in the first half (during which Seton Hall cut a nine-point deficit to two), played the entire second half and was steady all the way, including 8-of-8 shooting from the free-throw line.
Montrezl Harrell got the start in Behanan's absence, and also played well, shooting 7 of 9 from the field to finish with 14 points in 23 minutes.
Pitino wants Harrell to rebound more. He had only three against Seton Hall. But as a freshman getting his first taste of Big East play, the coach wouldn't complain.
"He plays hard and wants to win badly, he just doesn't rebound.," Pitino said. " . . . It's just technique, it's not desire. He doesn't follow the flight of the ball. Gorgui played great. Montrezl played great. I'm very pleased with Montrezl and I'm not going to take a freshman who's just learning the game and find displeasure in him."
Pitino attributed some of Smith's troubles to coming home. The New York City native finished with 11 points and six assists, but also committed four turnovers and drew some pointed post game criticism from Pitino.
"Every time he comes home, he puts so much pressure on himself and loses his mind," Pitino told reporters after the game.
On his radio show, Pitino said, "Every breakdown defensively was (Smith). It's a shame, because we owe a lot to him. But tonight he didn't play like he has been, like the best player in the country."
U of L outscored Seton Hall 22-6 on fast-break points and 17-2 off the bench. The Cards shot 23 of 27 from the free-throw line and outscored Seton Hall 21-10 off turnovers. They made just four three-pointers, but all were big ones: two from Luke Hancock, and two from Wayne Blackshear.
In the end, it was a double-digit win on an off night for many of its players. But if the Cards regained some of their defensive mojo, the beauty factor of it will be high for Pitino.