LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville unveiled its 2013 NCAA Championship banner before Saturday's regular-season opener against College of Charleston in the KFC Yum! Center, and it was a moving experience both for those players who had a hand in hanging it, and those who join the program to try to defend that title.
It was so moving, in fact, that U of L coach Rick Pitino said it took his team about a half to get its head out of the rafters.
College of Charleston, a team that returned four starters and added a pair of talented freshmen, played No. 3-ranked U of L even for three-quarters of the game, and trailed by only two at halftime.
But if the Cardinal team that went into the locker room at halftime was still one thinking about its national championship, the one that came out in the second half was, in Pitino's words, "a starving dog." The Cardinals blitzed College of Charleston in the final five minutes, pulling away for a 70-48 victory before a KFC Yum! Center crowd of 20,938.
"Because we're a totally different basketball team, we were a little tight," Pitino said. "I knew this was going to be a difficult game because that's very experienced team, that can pass and cut. They know how to play. But the second half was more the qualities we saw last year, with a humble, hungry team. And that 'boom' quality we had last year came out again, because we played like a starving dog in the second half."
In a surprisingly physical game, given the pronouncements about new defensive officiating guidelines, the Cardinals could not make a shot for much of the game. The official shot chart afterward showed 17 missed layups. Wayne Blackshear started his junior year 0-for-11. He also was playing the most aggressive basketball of his career.
Things began to come together after halftime when the Cards got better communication on defense and were able to get Stephan Van Treese back up off the bench after he fell into early foul trouble.
Van Treese was a catalyst, with six points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots all after the break. That, combined with Mangok Mathiang's seven points and 10 rebounds in his first college game, gave the Cards enough from the center position to create problems for College of Charleston's pick-and-roll defense.
The Cougars seemed to possess everything necessary to give U of L problems. They had faced the Cards last season, and had disastrous results against the U of L pressure defense. Most of their starting unit was back from that experience, plus freshman Joe Chealey and Canyon Barry, the son of NBA great Rick Barry.
They took the three-point shot away from U of L and dared the Cards to drive inside or pass the ball to their big men. It took a while for U of L to strike on the right offensive mixture to score repeatedly.
"We were tight," freshman Terry Rozier said. "You see all that championship talk and you want to come out and do a great job. I think once we all settled down things started to go the right way."
Even senior All-American Russ Smith seemed out of sync at times early, committing a pair of first-half turnovers on plays he might have gone to the rim a year ago. He made better decisions in the second half and finished with a game-high 21 points and five assists.
Junior transfer Chris Jones added 12 points, 5 assists and two steals, while Blackshear finished with 10 points and Montrezl Harrell had 10 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
The Cards forced 21 turnovers and committed only three. They held a 27-6 edge in points off turnovers, and an edge of 11-0 in second-chance points.
"We just had to come in at halftime and remember what we do," Harrell said. "We're a team that talks, that has each other's backs. We needed to get hungry again. We're not that championship team."
Van Treese has been taking some shots from Pitino in public in recent days. Pitino even said before the Cards' last exhibition game that Van Treese had no desire to be anything more than a role player.
But during a stretch midway through the second half with the Cards up seven and threatening to make a move, it was Van Treese who became active inside and helped the Cards build on their lead for the first time in the game.
"That's exactly what we want. That type of play," Pitino said. "From Stephan and Mangok. If we can get that from our five men, we'll be happy. Hungry hustle, and that's what they gave us."
Van Treese said he'd heard the talk from Pitino earlier in the week, and was determined to avoid a repeat.
"Coach has been pushing me for the past two weeks, and I know he was upset at me after the last game, and if I didn't do something today, I was going to hear about it," he said.
Pitino said the banner ceremony was an emotional experience for him. He was asked to speak to the crowd briefly before the game, and likened U of L to the Green Bay Packers. "We're owned by our fans."
"That pageantry was something," Pitino said. ". . . To be honest, I was kind of choked up. I didn't want to speak. The whole thing was great, but now it's time to move on. It's not only the championship, but the way they did it, with great class and humility. The way they fought back from being down. The 16 straight wins. The last tournament in Madison Square Garden for the Big East. The great games we had to win. Every time I think about it, I get choked up."
Pitino said that Luke Hancock will return soon. Chane Behanan is expected to pick up his activities with the team, now that he has returned to practice.
"They're big components to our team, and we just have to hang in until we get them back," Pitino said.
Van Treese said the game was an appropriate opener. It began with a look back, but ended with the team looking forward.
"(The banner ceremonies) brought back a lot of memories, but we want to create our own memories," Van Treese said. "Last year's team, we did what we did, but this game shows us we have to do our own thing. We have to have our own identity."
NOTES: Kevin Ware did not play, and may be a couple of weeks away from seeing regular action, according to Pitino. The coach said he detected a limp from Ware, and wants to be cautious. The junior did tape an interview with ESPN for its Sunday Conversation segment, and a crew from Good Morning America was in town to do a story on him. . . . U of L has won 10 straight season-openers and 19 of its past 21. Pitino is 25-3 in season-openers at the college level. . . . The game opened U of L's 100th season of basketball.
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