CRAWFORD | Cards ride a heat wave at Pitt after Pitino tinkers w - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Cards ride a heat wave at Pitt after Pitino tinkers with offense

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Photo by Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Photo by Matt Freed, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH, Pa. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville basketball team was in such a rush to blow out of Pittsburgh before the edge of Winter Storm Juno blew in that I got one question with Chris Jones after the game before the whole group bolted out the door to catch their charter flight home.

I don't know why they were in such hurry.

Terry Rozier was hot enough to de-ice a jet. The Cardinals were so hot they made Jamie Dixon seem cool. They torched Pittsburgh for 65.2 percent shooting on Sunday, and surely left some contrails of fire after their 80-68 win in the Peterson Events Center. It was the highest field-goal percentage ever for a Rick Pitino-coached Louisville team, and the highest for any U of L team since 1993.

CRAWFORD | Five thoughts on Louisville's win over Pitt

They zapped Pittsburgh's zone. They manhandled its man-to-man. They hit from inside and out. They excelled at both kinds of shooting two-point and three-point, or as they called them, regular and extra crispy.

Illustration: Wayne Blackshear had a three-pointer rim out at the buzzer to end the first half. The Cardinals then missed their first seven shots of the second half. Those eight misses were half of U of L's misses for the entire game.

After that, they made 10 in a row and 13 of their final 15 shots. And that was after a hot start. U of L's first shot of the game was a missed dunk by Montrezl Harrell. The Cardinals then made nine in a row and 11 of 12.

The book on this team, and believe me, I've read it and seen the made-for-TV adaptation, is that it can't shoot. Everybody says so. Rick Pitino says so. The stats, particularly in a couple of their losses, say so.

But the appendix they're writing in ACC play says that might be changing. U of L has shot 47 percent or better in five of its past seven games. In ACC play, the Cards should come in at sixth in field goal percentage once Sunday's outburst is added into the stats — 44.8 percent.

“We usually win with defense, but tonight we won with offense,” Pitino said. “Not that our defense was bad, but our offense was special. Great shooting percentages are a result of great passing, and we did a terrific job of passing against a very good defensive team. I am really proud of our guys; we needed to get this road win because we are at Boston College, at Miami and Virginia coming up. We needed to play well tonight to get our confidence back after the Duke loss.” 

Rozier, Chris Jones and even Wayne Blackshear waded into the lane with devastating results. Pitino made some small adjustments to the ball screens, but mainly cleared out the lane, rolling the screener away or slightly to the outside of the lane instead of directly to the basket.

“With zone I figure that that Gorgui Dieng is not walking through that door and neither is David Padgett, to bring out an old expression,” Pitino said with a grin. ”Those other guys, even though the middle is the way you beat a zone, don't make the plays that those guys make. So we took those guys out of it a little but. We ran some different offensive sets, which helped us a lot. And we did a lot of good things by getting to the paint with drives. That was our emphasis the whole week. . . . We did a lot of good things by getting to the paint with drives, and that was a point of emphasis all week in practice. I felt if we could do that, we could shoot a high percentage, and we did.”

Rozier made his first six shots and had 13 points in the first 8 1/2 minutes — but he also had four assists in that time.

“He just got going,” Dixon said. “He's a very good player, but zone, man, press, we guarded the ball screens different ways, and nothing seemed to be effective in what we did. I thought we would have zoned more, but they scored every single time we went to zone. That kept us away from that. We tried everything. We've just got to do it better. What we're doing, we've got to do it better.” 

Despite all the offense, the Cards didn't pull away at once. Pittsburgh got good looks against U of L's zone in the first half and kept pace until back-to-back Montrezl Harrell dunks and late scores by Rozier and Jones gave the Cardinals a 10-point halftime lead.

The Cards were cold from the field to start the second half and Pitt cut its deficit to five, but U of L hit the gas again and the Panthers got no closer than nine the rest of the way.

But that, too, shouldn't be overlooked. Pitino said there was evidence of a lesson learned in the way the Cardinals finished this game. He told them during a timeout, after Pittsburgh had put together a run helped along by a Jones technical foul that they couldn't repeat their North Carolina mistakes.

“We played great basketball against North Carolina and they learned from that,” Pitino said. “I told them we need to finish this thing, and tonight they did.” 

All of the driving by Rozier and Jones set up Harrell for easy baskets inside. Of Harrell's eight field goals, five were off Jones assists.

Rozier finished with 26 points to run his average over the past 12 games to 21 points per game. He also finished with six assists and five rebounds. Jones finished with 17 points and nine assists. Harrell had 18 and seven rebounds.

The Cards got 11 points off the bench from Mangok Mathiang, who made all three of his field-goal attempts and, more surprisingly, all five of his free throws, including on a couple of trips late when Pitt fouled him intentionally to try to catch up.

In ACC play, Jones is second in the league in assists. It's been a remarkable change from his performance against Kentucky, effected in a short time.

“From crazy to a psycho,” Pitino said, then added quickly, “I say that in an endearing way. Both of those guys (Jones and Rozier), they get so down about a mistake. I thought Terry was going to break his hand at one point because he got fouled and hit pretty hard and didn't get the call. I said guys that's the road. Sometimes you don't get the call. That's what makes both of them so great.”

That, and their physical conditioning. Pitino said he's never asked guards to press as hard as those two are pressing for as many minutes as they're playing.

“I don't know when I've seen guys with that kind of stamina,” Pitino said.

After the game, Jones noted that the Cards are statistically far better on the road than at home. He then said, “We've got to put two and two together and play this way at home.”

But with three of the next four away from home, the Cards' offense is looking more at home. And if they keep shooting the way they did Sunday, they won't have to fear the storm. They'll be the storm.

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