VIDEO: Post-game report from UofL win at Syracuse:click here.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WDRB) -- Show of hands, how many people reading this rolled their eyes when Rick Pitino said we hadn't seen the "real" Luke Hancock earlier this season? Go ahead, nobody's looking. How many thought his whole "pressure of the home fans" theory was a little shaky?
All right, maybe it was. But here's what wasn't shaky: Luke Hancock down the stretch of U of L's 58-53 win at Syracuse on Saturday.
For anyone wondering why Pitino made the junior transfer from George Mason a captain before he ever played an official game at U of L, the rationale was on display in front of a CBS audience and a crowd of 31,173 in the Carrier Dome.
Hancock went 3-for-3 from three-point range in the second half -- all in the final 9:01 -- and came up with the game's biggest plays, one on each end, in the final minute and a half, to lead the No. 9 Cardinals (24-5, 12-4) to their fifth straight victory.
He made a deflection and got a steal from Brandon Triche with 1:14 left, then buried a three, on a called play out of a timeout after a drive and dish from Russ Smith, to put U of L up 51-48 with 53 seconds left.
For a U of L team that had been having bad luck -- including a couple of offensive fouls that prompted Pitino to rip off his suit coat and dump it into Wayne Blackshear's lap on the bench -- those plays were a ray of sunshine. They weren't quite deliverance, but they helped overcome a late-game mental block for the Cards. The steal perhaps was the biggest play, depriving the Orange a chance to go into the final minute with a lead after erasing a seven-point deficit in a near copy of their win in the KFC Yum! Center.
"We watched so much film on them, because they don't run that many sets, they just run them really well," Hancock said. "Kevin Ware was with me on that side, and (James) Southerland had been going off and (Michael) Carter-Williams had been going back door. But I didn't really play it fundamentally right because I kind of turned my back on the ball. But I just put my hand in there and knocked it off of him and into my hands. A little bit of luck."
It was a team in need of a little bit of luck. But even more, it was in need of a little bit of shooting. And Hancock has been delivering that. He's 8 of 11 from three-point range the past three games.
By now, everybody knows that Hancock's shooting range is coming around. What they might not know is the effort it takes for Hancock to get to that point.
Every day he comes to the U of L basketball practice facility with an arm so stiff he can't raise it above his head.
Trainer Fred Hina takes him out onto the court and they do overhead two-hand passes to loosen him up. Then he throws the basketball like a baseball. They do "tissue mobilization." They do stretching. If you watch Hancock carefully, he's always moving the shoulder on the bench to try to keep it from tightening back up.
But that's not all. He has weight programs to re-strengthen the surgically repaired shoulder. He's going through two separate rehabilitation program.
"He has a rotator cuff program and a scapular stabilization program," Hina said. "And obviously the biggest thing with the type of injury he had is restoring full range of motion. And that's still going to take some time because it was just a really bad injury. . . . He's working on the shoulder on various programs a good 30 minutes to an hour every day."
And that's just to get himself ready to play.
"All the credit goes to him," Hina said. "The type of injury he had, a complete glenohumeral dislocation with a partial rotator cuff tear. And the rotator cuff tear is the thing that really takes a long time. Most people don't come back from that for 8-12 months. He was back in four months."
And his shooting eye has returned just in time for the Cards. He's now 28-67 from three-point range in Big East play, 41.8 percent. And that outside boost could be just enough for a team that is regaining its stingy defensive form.
"I'm just glad to be able to contribute," Hancock said. "It doesn't have to be shooting. Rebounding, defense, whatever. Coach told me I needed to improve my defense down the stretch, and to make better decisions. I was going for the big play, throwing the lob too early in the shot clock and stuff like that."
Now, his biggest contribution might've been sparking confidence in a team that has had its share of late-game struggles.
"We did a lot of good things offensive and defensibly at crucial times," Pitino said. "We had some really, really difficult calls go against us and we still stayed mentally tough and didn't let it get to us. Some teams wilt. We didn't wilt. That's the sign of a good veteran team. . . . If you had Luke's shoulder, you wouldn't be able to hold that microphone to interview me. He's one of the toughest kids I've ever seen."
The win also is significant because the catalyst for victory late was a different duo than has delivered all season. Early this year it was Peyton Siva and Smith who carried the team. At times it has been Smith seemingly alone, and Gorgui Dieng has emerged in the past month. Saturday, it was not only Hancock, but Kevin Ware who came off the bench and, though he didn't post big numbers, had eight points and played solid defense and gave the Cards an answer for Syracuse's taller guards.
In a game where Siva just couldn't get it going (0 for 9 from the field) Ware was crucial. In fact, Pitino went with Smith and Ware down the stretch because Siva was struggling with his shot. Siva is 1-for-18 from the field in two games against the Orange this season, including 1-for-15 from three-point range).
"I don't think I've ever gone away from Peyton Siva in my life," Pitino said. "I'll tell you a cute story. There's always one team with a player that just psychologically you don't play well against. Thirty some-odd years ago there was only one team that bothered Billy Donovan, and unfortunately we had to play them in the Final Four, and it was Syracuse. It was the only team he didn't play well against. . . . So it's not just Peyton Siva. The zone bothers certain people. It bothered Billy the Kid, and it bothered Peyton. I don't like going away from him because I have so much confidence in him. But I had to in this basketball game."
Smith finished with a team-high 18 points and dished out five assists. Siva, who played well aside from his missed shots, had four assists. Hancock finished with 12 points and Dieng added 11 points and 14 rebounds.
After the five-overtime loss at Notre Dame, Pitino set for his team the goal of winning its final seven regular-season games. It now has won five in a row.
"We haven't had a bad game all year," Pitino said. "It was a goal of ours to win our last eight games. Did I think it was probable? No. Did I think it was possible? Yes. We now have two tough games left, and if we accomplish what we set out to do, then obviously, we're a good veteran ballclub. . . . We can't get too happy with ourselves. I'll let the guys celebrate tonight, but tomorrow we better be ready to hone in on Cincinnati."
After the game, Dieng sat by himself with a large aluminum pan in his hands, reporters paying attention to other players like Ware, Hancock and Smith. The junior center just munched on his postgame snack -- of oranges.
"I think everybody is playing with confidence right now," Hancock said. "We just have to keep improving and keep coming together."