ROSEMONT, Ill. (WDRB) -- Everybody knows that the biggest game of the week for the University of Louisville basketball team is Saturday at No. 12-ranked Syracuse.
Everybody knows that, anyway, except U of L coach Rick Pitino and his players. To a man, after Wednesday night's 79-58 win over DePaul, the Cardinal contingent claimed that the DePaul game was bigger.
That's right, DePaul, 2-12 in the Big East, winners of just seven Big East games since 2009. The same DePaul that has spawned "DePaul Day," the brainchild of Mike Rutherford at U of L fan blog CardChronicle.com, a day when all wrongs are righted, when past encumbrances are cast aside, a day when all becomes right with the world, a day of hoops Jubilee, at least if you're a Cardinal fan.
"This is going to sound crazy to you," Pitino said after the game.
All right, we're listening.
"This was a much bigger game tonight (than Syracuse Saturday). Much bigger. Because if you lose to Syracuse, it really doesn't hurt you at all. And I don't mean to denigrate DePaul . . . "
Of course not, go ahead.
"But the DePauls, the Seton Halls on the road, just look at what happened tonight. Michigan loses to Penn State and Villanova had to have the game the other night at Seton Hall (it lost). These are the games you have to win going into the tournament. So we had to have tonight. And obviously, Syracuse will be a big game."
Peyton Siva, in the locker room after the game: "This was a big win, because if we'd lost to DePaul . . . "
Some things are better left unsaid.
There were, in reality, only two anxious moments in this one, which could scarcely be called a road game with the crowd split nearly evenly between Cardinal and Blue Demon supporters. Three young boys were waiting at the end of the court to slap hands with players and coaches. Coming out for the second half, one of the kids extended hands to DePaul's players. One DePaul assistant left him hanging.
"Can't do it," he said. "You're wearing a Louisville shirt. Get a DePaul shirt."
DePaul jumped out to an 8-0 lead, prompting the first of U of L's semi-anxious moments. The Cards looked disorganized and disinterested. DePaul made four of its first six shots. Then it made just 2 of its next 20.
DePaul Day, ladies and gentlemen.
Still, U of L never quite stepped on the gas. The Cards fouled too much and executed too little. They led by nine at the half and held a double-digit lead for 10 minutes to start the second half until DePaul used a couple of U of L turnovers to pull within nine points. Peyton Siva was saddled with four fouls. Gorgui Dieng had three.
Pitino burned two timeouts within 30 seconds to try to get his team settled, then had a TV timeout soon after that.
The main result of all that was that after turning the ball over 18 times in the game's first 31 minutes, the Cardinals didn't have any turnovers in the final 9 minutes of play.
It was, for want of a better term, a DePaul Day miracle. And U of L pulled away for a 21-point victory.
Amid it all, there were several noteworthy items:
-- Russ Smith, despite a quick spate of turnovers, in general played a strong all-around game with 17 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals. He became the 55th Cardinal to reach the 1,000-point milestone. Also, he became the first to reach the 55,000 shot milestone.
All right, that second one was made up. "When Russ Smith passes the basketball, we have a big-time chance of being a great team," Pitino said. "When he doesn't, and he gambles on defense, we're just a mediocre team. But if we can get him to totally buy-in offensively and defensively, we've got the makings of a great team."
-- Chane Behanan's second-half dunk over a defender perched in the charge-block circle was the talk of the locker room afterward.
"I could feel teeth on my knee," Behanan said.
"Chane is full of it," Siva said. "But he got pretty high, I'll given him that. I was standing right there, taking pictures and looking up. That's amazing. . . . He took off, got a little extra boost, and it should be on SportsCenter tonight."
Siva is a soothsayer. Behanan's dunk made No. 1 in the SportsCenter Top Plays.
-- The Cardinals took only three 3-point shots in the second half and made two of them. They tried only eight in the game. Pitino said he's resigned to not having the three as a weapon.
"I've never coached a team that couldn't shoot threes, pros, college," Pitino said. "And this team is a very good basketball team without shooting threes, so passing and defense is essential. But I feel like I've lost one of my closest friends in life without the 3-point shot, but it's just the nature of this team right now. We don't have a three-point shooter."
-- U of L's team didn't leave Louisville until 2 p.m. by charter plane for the 9 p.m. Eastern start in Chicago. Pitino said that had nothing to do with the Cards' sluggish start, though.
"We've traveled day of the game, this is our third time doing it (this season) and I like doing it," Pitino said. "At Kentucky, I did it every game but one in '96, every game. Now, that's because you're going to the worst towns in America in the SEC. I'd like to go to Chicago three days before."
-- U of L had good balance. In addition to Smith's 17, Siva had 16, Montrezl Harrell had 11 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes and Gorgui Dieng and Behanan had 10 each. Pitino also praised the play of Kevin Ware and Stephan Van Treese. U of L outrebounded DePaul 22-11 in the second half and outscored the Blue Demons 22-6 off the bench.
They've now won four in a row since the five-overtime loss at Notre Dame, but Pitino doesn't feel like the winning streak says anything about his team.
"We gave the (Notre Dame) game away," he said. "We really haven't had a bad game all year. We lost to Georgetown on the flip of a coin. We lost to Syracuse on the flip of a coin. Lost to Villanova up eight twice and missed our free throws. Last year we had so many bumps in the road. This year we haven't had bumps, just got beat by better teams that given night. It's been a good year for us. We're 23-5, played good basketball, and we do it with defense, which is what you have to do."
With three games left, at Syracuse, and at home against Cincinnati and Notre Dame, the Cards enter a mini-tournament before the tournament, playing for seeding rather than survival.
"That's the goal now," Siva said. "You want to win to play for a good seed, and start playing your best basketball of the season."
The Cards' didn't do quite that on Wednesday. But on DePaul Day, they were good enough.
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