LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- They were, given all that's happened over the past three games for the University of Louisville basketball team, the four biggest shots of the season.
Two of them were by Chane Behanan. Two by Gorgui Dieng. All of them came from the free-throw line. But all of them entailed crossing a bit of a psychological threshold.
Behanan stepped to the line with 24 seconds left and a three-point lead. He had made only three of nine at Villanova last week and blamed himself for that loss. He made both.
Twelve seconds later, Dieng went to the line with only a two-point lead. His first shot of the game, a 10-footer on the baseline, sailed two feet over the rim. His midrange game, so hard-won in offseason work, has deserted him recently.
Didn't matter. He slowed down, dialed in, and made both to seal a 64-61 victory. It was a win that stopped a three-game losing streak, a win that came without starting small forward, Wayne Blackshear, lost to a sprained right shoulder, and without reserve guard Kevin Ware because of suspension.
It was a win that allows the team to take a breath and regroup with six days to prepare for a Sunday visit from Marquette.
But more than that, it was a win in which the Cardinals stared down some budding demons that had cost them late in their three losses this month, and overcame some of them -- starting with free throws.
Dieng and Behanan weren't the only ones. Montrezl Harrell, who was shooting 11.1 percent from the line in Big East play (that's right, it's not a misprint, 1-for-9), made both of his attempts.
"I just believed in myself," Dieng said. "I just thought, whatever it takes, I've got to make these two. Because we need it. I knew how important this one was."
But it didn't just start with believing on the free throw line. What the KFC Yum! Center crowd couldn't see was that each of those three guys has been shooting free throws before practice, and staying after to work on it, too.
There are eight baskets in the Yum! Center basketball practice facility on Floyd Street. All three players have been making themselves hit 20 free throws at each basket before they leave, according to Siva.
"Those guys have been doing it on the their own, and you see the results," Siva said. "You not only get better, but you have more confidence in that situation."
Nobody was on the court at the KFC Yum! Center on Monday earlier than Siva. He was on the court two hours before tipoff shooting jumpers.
Those didn't exactly come into play against Pittsburgh. He finished with only two points. But his ten assists and half-court handle on the U of L offense were enough to pull the shorthanded Cardinals back from the brink.
He still made mistakes. A charge when the Cards were up six with 3:49 to play helped Pittsburgh tighten the game up. But with the Cards needing him on the court, he played a full 40 minutes and was solid at both ends.
"I thought he was a major key to the game," U of L coach Rick Pitino said of Siva. "They couldn't turn us over because of that young man. He was a floor leader the whole way."
With Siva manning the half-court, it left the gas pedal to Russ Smith.
Before the game, Pitino had a serious talk with his team. He told them that while they want to press and run and play a finesse and frenetic pace, it's just not possible all the time in the Big East. There are going to be teams that simply refuse to run, that will slow the game down, and that if this team wants to be a contender for the league championship it will learn to do those little things that win close games in the 60s.
Smith listened to all that. And when the ball went up, he told his teammates this:
"I told the guys, if I'm at half court (after a missed shot), it may be two defenders down there, but I feel like I can take them," he said. "If I don't have anything, I can just dribble it back out and I did that maybe three times tonight, Pitt stopped the ball inside and I just reversed the ball to (Peyton) Siva. But I feel like if I can get the ball in transition, and there's one little crack, I can make an opportunity out of it."
That pretty well sums up Smith. Pitino preaches to pay attention to winning grind-it-out games. In Smith's mind, it is processed as, "You need to get out on the break." He views the world in green-light colored glasses.
Smith elaborated: "If I speed up I'm probably the fastest guy with the rock in the land. And if I race it up the court, then they have to get frantic and they have to turn heads and get out of their calm mode, then if don't have a shot, and bring it out and reverse it to Siva, then Siva is going to the lane and getting Gorgui (Dieng) a dunk. So if I can get the ball out a little bit and make smart decisions and reverse it, we'll get something good almost every time."
Smith's logic is sometimes as helter-skelter as his play. But that frenetic quality, when it is working, gives U of L a different offensive dimension. And it was working against Pittsburgh. He scored eight of the Cards' first 12 points, and assisted on two more.
More importantly, when U of L needed big baskets late, he was there with his share. When Pitt came from 10 down to trail by three with 4:53 left, he took a pass from Siva and buried a three-pointer. He also made a pair of free throws in the final minute.
The fine line Pitino has been walking, trying to let Russ be Russ while eliminating some of his wasteful shots, appeared to bear some fruit on Monday night, with Smith still playing with his usual abandon, but adjusting his mentality to re-start the offense when his drives weren't there. Smith shot 7 of 15 from the field, a percentage Pitino would take any day.
And Dieng, while his shot wasn't falling, still found big ways to contribute. He was on the receiving end of several nice Siva passes for dunks. He also dished out four assists, finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and blocked five shots.
U of L got manhandled on the offensive glass. It played some of its best half-court defense of the season, only to give up second-chance points, 25 of them. Pittsburgh missed 32 shots in the game. It rebounded 19 of those itself.
For the Cardinals, who have rebounded adequately all season, giving up offensive rebounds has quickly become a major problem.
"One of the reasons we're not rebounding well -- now, our bigs didn't do a good job of blocking out tonight -- is because our guards are so small and we're pressuring the three, and they don't come back to rebound," Pitino said. "The very simple elementary play is you take your rear end -- we show our guys Kenneth Faried tapes all the time -- and on every defensive rebound he squats, hits the guy, locates the ball and goes to chase it. I mean, we're standing there and what happens is the guy pushes you in the back so now you're underneath the rim. Well, Russ blocked out and hit his guy one time and got the over-the-back call. But we're not getting that call because we're not hitting him. So it's very minor, and we're going to continue to work on it."
Behanan, who finished with 12 points, grabbed only one defensive rebound. Harrell, who scored 8 points and had 5 rebounds in only 11 minutes, had three defensive rebounds.
"It was better," Siva said. "It wasn't pretty and we still made some mistakes. But they're a good team and they'd been playing very well. It shouldn't take having our backs to the wall for us to play better, but if that's what it takes, then let's do it. . . . I actually saw a video today of Isiah Thomas, and he said the best advice I ever got was, 'Stay paranoid.' I think that's what this team has to do. Stay on edge. Treat every game as a must-win situation."
NOTES: Pitino didn't give an expected return date for Blackshear, but described his shoulder sprain as "minor" and said he expected the sophomore to start until doctors told him today that he should be held out. . . . Pitino told Bob Valvano on his postgame radio show that Ware, whose suspension he did not elaborate on, is not expected back "anytime soon."
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