UNCASVILLE, Conn. (WDRB) -- To get into the Mohegan Sun Arena, you have to pass by its Casino of the Earth.
To get out of it on Sunday, the No. 3-ranked University of Louisville basketball team had to crash back down to earth, falling 93-84 to No. 24 North Carolina in the championship game of the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic.
The loss ended the longest winning streak in school history, a 21-game stretch that began after a five-overtime loss on Feb. 9 and included the Cards' third national championship.
The streak is over, U of L coach Rick Pitino said, because his team forgot what started the streak in the first place: its defense.
North Carolina shot 54.2 percent from the field and shredded the Cardinals with transition points, breakaway layups and even easy scores off the U of L press after the Cards took a nine-point lead early.
Russ Smith, U of L's All-American guard, finished with a career-high 36 points, but with him and point guard Chris Jones taking 42 of the Cards' 67 field goal attempts, the Cards could get no offensive presence on the front line, and could not figure out a way to stop the Tar Heels no matter what they tried defensively.
"We won a national championship last year because our defense was tops in the nation," Pitino said. "It's quite evident tonight that this is not the same team defensively at the three, four and five spot."
The interesting thing is that it's the same players at the three and four spots, but they are playing without center Gorgui Dieng behind them, and Dieng was one of the team's quickest players to rotate in help defense and a shot-blocking threat in any event.
On Sunday, no frontcourt spot gave the Cards much on either end. Wayne Blackshear didn't have a point or rebound, and got only one shot in 17 minutes. Luke Hancock was 1-of-8 from the field and had several layups roll off. Montrezl Harrell fouled out early and finished with just five points and 10 rebounds. Chane Behanan scored seven points and pulled down nine rebounds.
Still, Pitino noted that his team missed maybe a dozen layups, and while Jones and Smith need to do a better job of moving the ball, it wasn't ultimately the offense that cost them.
North Carolina attacked U of L's press with relish and got several uncontested breakaway layups from leaking players out on defensive rebounds.
"They're a basket-hanging team," Pitino said. "One time the guy didn't even cross half-court. That's a lot of confidence in your rebounding."
A week ago, the Tar Heels lost to Belmont. Since then, they've been trying to come to terms with losing guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are out because of NCAA investigations. On Sunday, point guard Marcus Paige was brilliant, playing 36 minutes against the Louisville press and finishing with 32 points on 9 of 12 shooting. He was 11 of 11 from the free-throw line. It was as strong a game as any single guard has played against U of L pressure in the past three years.
"Needless to say, we're really pleased with the way we played," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "We knew it would take our very best to win, and we played very well. . . . Our locker room right now is 180 degrees different from what it was a week ago (after a loss to Belmont)."
U of L tried man-to-man defense, and for the first time this season played longer stretches of zone, but neither was particularly effective.
"Whether it was zone or man we kept getting beat off the dribble and you can't do that," Pitino said. "When you're forced to rotate – the new rules make you rotate quite a bit -- so you have to have people from the weak side rebound the ball and our starting small forward and center grabbed two rebounds in major minutes. Actually Mangok didn't grab a defensive rebound. So it hurts you a little bit when you have to rotate so much and you're not balanced."
And in the full-court press, when U of L wasn't getting beaten up the court it was fouling in the backcourt.
"We really didn't press intelligently," Pitino said, noting the number of times his team fouled in the backcourt. "We didn't play good defense. . . . I just think defensively, I don't think they realize how hard we had to play to win (last season). And how smart we had to play to win. We really confused people. There's nothing confusing about losing your man. ... I've been telling these guys from the beginning, every day, when I watch practice, I'm not seeing a great defensive team."
Things that had not been problems for the Cardinals against a schedule ranked among the 20 weakest in the nation through their first five games became glaring problems against the Tar Heels. U of L has missed layups for much of the season. They regretted them Sunday.
They had several careless turnovers early that seemed just a function of North Carolina having much more athleticism than the Cards were used to seeing. Some of the final numbers were ugly. U of L was outscored 52-26 in the paint. In points off turnovers, a stat U of L usually dominates, North Carolina led 20-13.
Chris Jones finished with 20 points and Hancock had 10 off the bench for U of L. No other Cardinal reached double digits. UNC got 13 off the bench from Kennedy Meeks, who also had 12 rebounds and 7 assists. Brice Johnson had 13 off the bench for the Tar Heels.
In the end, Pitino said he'll be able to use the loss as a teaching tool.
"I do think we're going to get a lot better," Pitino told Bob Valvano on his postgame radio program on Nelligan Sports. "Tonight was a great, great thing for this basketball team. A, they didn't deserve this win, because they didn't play hard enough at the defense end. And I think they'll realize tomorrow that defense has got to become a priority. It was an excellent teaching point for them to get humbled."
"We tried to outscore them and I think they were better at it," Pitino told reporters after the game. "(It was a) good basketball game for this time of year. We learned an awful lot from it. I had some suspicions of where we were weak and they were confirmed tonight. We'll learn a lot from this game. Credit to North Carolina for winning it, hopefully we'll grow from it."
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