MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WDRB) -- With 4:46 to play and Memphis forced into a 30-second timeout after a Montrezl Harrell dunk put them behind eight points in Saturday's game against Louisville, Rick Pitino went scrambling onto the floor.
Harrell was on the court celebrating after his dunk -- and offensive rebound to keep the play alive -- and in general was a man among boys on the court. Pitino roared at him, and his teammates, to stop celebrating and get their rear ends into the huddle and their heads back into the game.
The former, they did. The latter, perhaps, they did not. Regardless of reason, the Tigers stormed back, outscoring the Cardinals 15-1 the rest of the way for a second straight come-from-behind victory in its sweep of Louisville, 72-66 in the FedEx Forum.
U of L missed its last eight shots, seven of them three-pointers. Memphis made all three of its field goals in the same period, one a go-ahead three by Chris Crawford with 1:40 left, and made eight of nine free throws. U of L missed two of three free-throws, one of them the front-end of a one-and-one by Russ Smith while trailing 68-65 with 1:28 left.
After the game, Pitino spent nearly 15 minutes in the locker room in lecture mode with his team, and had few words for the media.
"It was an extremely disappointing loss because we were in control of our destiny," Pitino said. "I knew we were in trouble when we went up seven and our guys acted like junior high kids. I knew they weren't focused to put the team away. So that was very disappointing for a defending national champion to act like they just won the game, when you go up by seven on the road. But give Memphis credit. They made some big plays. They made free throws, we missed free throws."
Actually, the margin was eight. And with four and a half minutes still to play, there were problems beyond premature celebration.
Again late in a close game, the Cardinals stopped attacking on offense, and wound up with guards taking tough shots in late shot-clock situations.
And worse than that -- they weren't getting the ball in any kind of scoring position to Harrell, who was unstoppable for much of the game. After making only one of his first four shots, he made 10 of his next 13 and finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes. But none of those shots came after his dunk put the Cardinals up eight.
"When you're having a great game, the defense tries to stop that guy," Pitino said.
But there was no basic defensive change. Harrell said Memphis changed personnel, but didn't change its philosophy. What changed, he said, was the offensive execution.
"They weren't doing anything," he said. "They changed the people that were guarding me, that was it. . . . I was still trying to stick to the offense and stick to what we were doing, it just didn't bounce our way. . . . We had a lot of defensive breakdowns and we tried to break plays on pick-and-rolls that led to runouts and easy buckets. We've just got to stick to the plays instead of going one on one and dribbling the ball off our foot and making runouts for them to get easy buckets. We've got to make people earn their points at the end of a game."
Down eight, Memphis cut its lead in half on four straight free-throws in back-to-back possessions, then tied the game off a layup by Michael Dixon Jr. after a Chris Jones miss, and a steal and layup by Geron Johnson. It took less than 2 1/2 minutes for Memphis to close the eight-point gap.
On its next possession, after a missed three by Jones, Luke Hancock slipped under a screen and Crawford nailed the go-ahead three.
There were other mental errors late. When Russ Smith fouled out with 21 seconds left, he was the wrong player to be doing the fouling, and he fouled the wrong player, Dixon, who made one free throw but lost the next because of a lane violation.
Down four, the Cardinals missed two late three-point tries, and that was it.
" Giving up a crucial three at tie score was a bad thing to have to happen because that's all we talked about with every timeout," said Pitino, who wen asked about the Cards late shot attempts said, "They were decent shots, Chris Jones is not a great three-point shooter but he was wide open and they gave him the shot."
After being dominant early on the CBS television stage, Smith had only four second-half points for the Cards and picked up his fourth foul on an ill-advised challenge away from the basket. Still, the team played well in is absence, with Harrell asserting himself, Jones playing solid defense and Terry Rozier running the offense well.
That all seemed to evaporate after the Cards went up by eight, however.
"I guarantee you, I've been around this game for a long time," Pitino said. "When we celebrated like children, up seven, we were finished. All of them acted like junior high kids. Very disappointed in them. Just give Memphis credit and we'll move on and hopefully get them back in the conference tournament."
Harrell said he didn't feel as if he was celebrating, but said if it was a detriment, he was sorry for it.
"I'm a player that plays with a lot of energy," he said. "If you look at it as celebrating, I don't know. But for my type of player, I play with a lot of energy and aggression and I put my heart out for the game, so if it looks like I'm celebrating sometimes, I do apologize, but that's just the way I play."
The Cards, as they did in the meeting in Louisville, struggled to defend Memphis in key stretches. The Tigers shot 49 percent from the field, and made 6 of 9 three-pointers. Rozier struggled on some three-point defense duties, as Hancock did on the late three.
Hancock finished with 11 points but managed to make only one three-pointer, though he did have one rim out late that would've put the Cards up nine with under four minutes to play.
Wayne Blackshear managed just two points and one field-goal attempt in 16 minutes, and Mangok Mathiang was unable to provide much in his nine minutes against the more experienced interior players of Memphis.
Jones, in two games against his hometown school, now is 2-for-19 from the field after a 1-for-10 performance Saturday.
Pitino said the Cards can't dwell on the defeat.
"These are hostile environments," Pitino said. "Wednesday is even going to be worse. These are good tournament games. We're gong to be a good tournament team. I'm not overly concerned with it. Cincinnati lost today. We've had a good road season, it came to an end, and we've got to get ready for another close game."
Still, there are concerns for this team -- and not just shaving the beards that Pitino and his players had vowed to grow out until they lost a game.
This is the third loss in conference play that U of L has lost after leading late. Generally, it has been a lack of late defense and passive offense that has led it into situations that are tougher than they should be.
"We have to figure out how to not put ourselves into those situations," Smith said.
Said Harrell: "I wouldn't say I'm worried. We took a tough loss today. We beat ourselves. Memphis played a good game and knocked down some big-time shots. But we beat ourselves. We knew exactly what they were going to do, and we came down and tried to go one-on-one, and they turned us over. We got in the half-court on defense and started going under screens and started coming off people, and they hit some big-time shots."
Hancock has been through many big wins with the program. This is the type of game it has won for the better part of the past two years, dating back to the 2012 postseason. I asked him how he thinks this group will respond with a matchup at SMU on its Senior Night Wednesday.
"This game will be kind of wake up," Harrell said. "I don't think there will need to be much more said about it. . . . I'm not really sure (how the team responds). We have a lot of work to do. We kind of gave that one away, up that many points."