CRAWFORD | Figuring it out: Louisville learns lessons in comebac - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Figuring it out: Louisville learns lessons in comeback win over UNC

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AP photo. AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Who turned on the lights? For the University of Louisville basketball team, beating a team like North Carolina is nice, but the discoveries that came about in the Cards' 78-68 overtime win over the Tar Heels were even more valuable.

The No. 10-ranked Cardinals were the hoops equivalent of 180-pound weaklings in the first half. No. 13 North Carolina kicked sand in their faces, locked them down on defense and outrebounded them 27-16. They were whatever version of Rob Lowe that can't shoot. They missed 15 of their last 18 shots of the first half, and their first three shots in the second.

CRAWFORD | Five thoughts on Louisville's win over UNC

With 17:51 to play in the game, Rick Pitino called timeout and with his team gathered around, behind by 18 points, he told them, “I need the old Louisville team back. I can't have the one that just wants to score.”

He got the old team from that point forward — dogged defense and determined rebounding. He also got 22 points from Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier, and 17 from Chris Jones, to move the team to 18-3, 6-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Maybe it was the white out, but some light bulbs appeared to switch on for the Cardinals.

DISCOVERY 1: REBOUNDING RULES. In the first half, North Carolina beat Louisville 11-7 on the offensive glass and scored 11 of its 36 points off offensive rebounds. In the second half and overtime, U of L outrebounded the Tar Heels 30-17. They had 15 offensive rebounds. UNC had two. They had 17 second-chance points, UNC had 0.

Some of that is sheer effort, yes. That's how North Carolina coach Roy Williams saw it.

“They wanted the basketball and were tougher about it than my team was and that's my fault,” Williams said. “. . . Their defense was stronger than our offense. I think their will was stronger than our will.”

But it wasn't all toughness. Much of it was technique. Montrezl Harrell has not been himself on the boards lately. Pitino said he has been telling him why for weeks, but something clicked on Saturday.

When you stand straight up and down, you become easy to block out. An opponent can locate you, plant his butt on you and lock out you out. Pitino's message to Harrell has been to bend his legs, become a more elusive target, make yourself smaller and harder to find, then spring when the ball comes off the rim.

“I told him, if you bend your knees, they are not keeping you off the boards,” Pitino said he told Harrell. He was right. Harrell finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds, two assists and two steals. He did not have a turnover.

Williams said he played “a little possessed.” That's Harrell's game. It hasn't exactly been that way for a couple of weeks. But he looked to be waking up in the second half. A monstrous alley-oop slam made all the highlight shows. But he was better defensively, and scored in a variety of ways in the paint.

“I threw it to Egypt, and he just caught it.” Chris Jones said of his lob to Harrell. “. . . That was a game-changing moment to me. It brought a lot of energy to the team and into the building.”

Harrell's low-to-the ground stance also helped him offensively, especially on a fake-handoff to Chris Jones near the top of the key, Harrell pulled the ball back, took two bounces on the dribble and scored at the rim to tie the game.

But he wasn't the only interior player putting a lesson into practice.

DISCOVERY 2: WELCOME BACK, DEFENSE. The Cardinals got their best play of the season from the center position in the second half. Part of that was a simple defensive adjustment. Pitino wanted his wings containing the ball better, but if they did get beat, he wanted his five men to take a step out of bounds to cut off a passing lane. Both Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku made big defensive plays in that manner, and in contesting shots and recovering to rebound late.

The pair combined for seven points, nine rebounds, four blocks and two steals. They aren't eye-popping numbers, but they were enough.

Louisville endured a stretch of 9:08 without making a basket. If you do that against a Top 25 team and still win, it means you were doing some things right defensively. The Cardinals gave up just four fast-break points to one of the best transition teams in the country. They held North Carolina to 41.3 percent shooting, and still managed to win while shooting just 33.8 percent themselves.

This was not a game where the offense came to life in one quick burst. It was a game where defense led to offense, and gave the team to win despite a bad shooting night.

“I am real excited because we didn't play well offensively and we won it,” Pitino said.

More than that, the defense U of L played required a higher level of teamwork than the team had been showing, against an offense like North Carolina. And the Cardinals delivered it.

“He told us in the timeout when we were down 18, if we didn't play better defense, we were going to lose by 30,” Harrell said, and we agreed with him. “The game turned when we started making our pressure more of a factor. We can't let teams get comfortable, and we need to get our defense back to that.”

Rozier agreed, saying, “We pressured more. We played Louisville defense like we were supposed to be doing from the jump. It's crazy that it took us to be down like that to realize it, but we tried to do a good job of pressuring them, and it worked for us.”

DISCOVERY 3: HURRYING AT HOME. 

At the half Saturday, this was the status of the U of L basketball team: In their previous four halves at the KFC Yum! Center, they were shooting 31.7 percent from the field. Matthew McConaughey could've driven his Lincoln cross country talking to himself and still not figured out what kind of mental block these guys had developed in their home arena.

But Pitino, in the locker room, had the answer. It wasn't a case of the rims being too tight, or even players being too tight, it was of the team being too anxious, rushing its offense.

“The team that I witnessed on the past two games on the road was an execution machine,” Pitino said. “Then (playing at home) everyone tried to rush. Coach Wooden said it for a reason and it is really true, `be quick but don't hurry.' That (hurrying) is what we are doing at home. . . . That's really the reason why we haven't played well at home — we are rushing things offensively, from the pick and roll on and not letting our movement set in to taking quick shots.”

But the Cards slowed things down a bit offensively in the second half, and found enough offense to win. It's a lesson the team needs to remember moving forward. Faster isn't always more efficient.

ALL OF THESE THINGS, the Cards can use moving forward, and they'll have to. They come back with road games at Miami and at Virginia this week.

The game should give the Cards confidence, but more importantly, it showed that perhaps this team is figuring out how to play together.

How hard is it to win three straight ACC games? Only one other team in the league as a winning streak that long (Clemson). Rozier said that after the Duke loss, the team went into tournament mode.

“We've been talking about treating the last couple of games like a tournament,” Rozier said. “We don't want to lose.”

Williams made an interesting observation about the Cardinals in his postgame remarks, saying, “They're one of the few teams whose stats have gotten better since the stat of ACC play. That's the sign of a team that's improving.”

The Cardinals didn't shoot it well. They didn't shoot free-throws well (27-44). But they did rebound, and they did defend. And they won, with some lessons they should have for the rest of the season.

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