CRAWFORD | New team, old lesson: Pitino pleased with Louisville's response to adversity
Rick Pitino said he didn't know what to expect of his team after a 16-point loss Saturday to Virginia, but he was pleased with its response.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville basketball team had just beaten No. 2-ranked North Carolina 71-65 in the KFC Yum! Center, and I was in the locker room looking to talk to some guys about what the previous 48 hours had been like, since suffering a 16-point home-court loss to Virginia.
I figured I’d start with somebody who has been around for a while, who has seen the team bounce back from adversity, and compare what this team did Monday night to what it has done in the past.
That’s when it it me — there is no one. Certainly, there’s no one who was around when the Cardinals were 12 down to Michigan in the Georgia Dome and Spike Albrecht was hitting everything in sight. There’s no one who was around when they lost three straight games that season, or a five-overtime heartbreaker to Notre Dame.
Nobody who remembered what it was like to lose on senior night in 2012, or to lose four of their final six that season.
There was one guy, of course. Rick Pitino is one of the all-time specialists in bouncing back from adversity -- and not just on the court. If his team is up, he can knock it down. But if his team is down, he has a tremendous ability to pick it up. Just when you don’t expect it, you should expect it.
Of course, after Saturday's loss to Virginia, which was beyond his imagination, Pitino had no idea what to expect.
“To be honest with you, Eric, I didn’t know," he said. "I knew the last four years about my team. They’d be so afraid of me that they’d never want to lose two games in a row. But this team, I didn’t get upset at them. I just told them to get off the mat.”
Mangok Mathiang, who has been around as much as anyone, said it probably wasn’t the same Pitino who would’ve rolled in after a double-digit loss in the past two seasons.
“He was furious, not because of the loss, but because of the way we came out and didn’t respond to a very good defensive team,” Mathiang said. “He tries to get everybody ready for the game and tell them what to expect, and guys didn't really get it, so he took all that on himself. He beat himself up more than the team. . . . With a new team, young kids, especially to lose like that and then having a game like North Carolina, you can’t play the negative, tough-love kind of game. He just told guys what they needed to do to fix things, and to move on.”
Pitino said he just didn’t think fire-and-brimstone was the way to go.
“You’ve got to know certain people,” Pitino said. “And this team, you’ve got to give them confidence. I didn’t know (how this team would react), but now that I’ve seen it, I’m very impressed.”
How they reacted was to play big-time defense against one of the most potent offensive teams in the country. And they outrebounded one of the top rebounding teams in the country. Offensively, Pitino gave them the goal of 45 paint touches. They got 60.
Anas Mahmoud threw a behind-the-back pass for an assist on the break. Chinanu Onuaku caught a lob while being pushed the ground and made the shot. Then made the free throw. Underhanded.
Onuaku grabbed 10 rebounds (and scored 12 points) in only 23 minutes. He led a group effort that saw seven players grab at least four rebounds.
The biggest question facing this team was how its guards would handle the quickness of North Carolina’s guards. On the surface, Quentin Snider’s performance at point guard wasn’t pretty, but to Pitino it was a thing of beauty. Snider regularly beat pressure and got to the rim. He only made 2 of 11 shots, but he dished out a team high 7 assists and had only one turnover.
“You look at his stats and you don’t think he played well, but he was brilliant tonight,” Pitino said. “He was great. . . . He kept beating the pressure the whole night.”
Lee scored Louisville’s first basket on a drive and slam straight down the lane. It set a tone for Louisville, and Lee kept it up, scoring 24 points, making 4 of 7 threes, while grabbing five rebounds.
“Damion's got a quick release, he's a scorer,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We talked about picking him up in transition - he made two threes in transition. We talk about he'll look down at your shoe laces and freeze you and then pull up and shoot it, he did that.”
In the end, Williams said, Louisville played like the team that was more hungry.
“Both teams I felt like, had a sense of urgency, but their sense of urgency was a little bit better than ours,” he said.
Said Louisville guard Trey Lewis, “I woke up this morning knowing we were going to win this game. When something happens like happened the last game, I knew we were going to bounce back.”
Lewis might’ve known. Pitino didn’t know. Nor, frankly, does anyone know what will happen in the next game, or on down the road, how good this team could be.
But Lee says it’s time to find out.
“It’s Feb. 1,” he said. “I have one month left in my last college basketball regular season. I want to soak it all up and enjoy it as much as I can. This win is definitely huge for us. We needed it to try to start rolling. We have nine more regular-season games left. It’s time.”
It’s a dangerous thing, trying to read what a win will mean for a team. Certainly, this is the “signature” type of win the Cardinals needed, even on their home court. It was an upset from the standpoint of rankings and ACC standings, but it wasn’t a true upset, because Las Vegas favored the Cardinals by a point heading into the game.
Maybe Vegas knew something everybody else didn’t. Or maybe it has seen enough of Pitino’s teams to know that when they’re on the mat, they’re dangerous.
“I told our guys, I know you’re disappointed, but when adversity hits and you’re on the mat, you don’t get judged by falling down, because you’re going to fall down a lot in your life, it’s how you get up,” he said. “You’ll be judged on this game by how you get up.”
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.