BOZICH | Louisville win, Carolina loss stirs more ACC drama for Cards
Louisville needed to end its two-game losing streak by defeating Syracuse Wednesday -- and the Cardinals delivered, ending their two-game losing streak.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This was a game the University of Louisville basketball team had to win if the Cardinals wanted to extend their quest to win even a sliver of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship.
Had to win.
Rick Pitino’s team started the evening behind four teams in the ACC standings – two games behind North Carolina in the loss column. With a home game against Duke, plus trips to Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia looming, the Cardinals lacked time to overcome a stumble against eight-loss Syracuse.
Consider the quest for ACC satisfaction in play.
Rallying from a 12-point deficit, Louisville ended its two-game losing streak by defeating the Orange, 72-58, at the KFC Yum! Center Wednesday night.
This was nice work by the Cardinals, now 20-6 overall and 9-4 in the ACC.. The Orange had won five straight, the longest winning streak in the ACC. Nobody had beaten Syracuse by more than 13. In a season where Louisville has taken itself out of the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, this victory will rank as a season highlight.
"The objective now is not to be bitter but to get better," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. "Bitterness gets you nowhere."
The real bonus came later. Duke toppled North Carolina, 74-73, in Chapel Hill. Now the ACC is officially a mess.
"We're really focused on trying to win the ACC but at this point after the loss to Notre Dame, we're really trying to take it one game at a time and not look ahead," said freshman Donovan Mitchell.
UNC and Miami are tied at the top with 10-3 records. Then comes Virginia at 10-4. Then comes U of L, Duke and Notre Dame, all stacked at 9-4.
Pitino shuffled his starting lineup, pulling senior Trey Lewis and giving his spot to Mitchell. The move was billed as a reward for Mitchell, who had delivered four straight games of 10 or more points.
But it was the Cards’ first game since Lee criticized Pitino for cutting his minutes at Notre Dame Saturday, saying that “it’s hard to play with a leash.”
By game’s end, none of that mattered. Mitchell starred with eight points and four assists. So did Lewis, scoring 14 as a sub. So did Damion Lee, who led Louisville with 15.
So did Chinanu Onuaku. Credit him with 13 points and 15 boards, seven on the offensive glass. Onuaku was the star of stars. He said after the game he planned to attend the NBA Draft combine and make his decision on next season after that opportunity to perform in front of the scouts.
He said he was more pleased by his rebounds than points. He also said he was more pleased by his offensive rebounds than the work he did on the defensive end.
"He's only scratching the surface of his potential," Pitino said. "Once he gets to the point where he doesn't get physically tired, look out ... He played brilliant basketball."
Louisville did not do this the easy way.
The Cards missed their first five shots. They turned the ball over twice. They trailed 5-0. The slow start lingered into the second media timeout. Louisville missed 10 of its first 13 shots, including all four three-pointers. Syracuse led, 13-6.
Strong shooting from distance rallied the Cardinals. A three-pointer by Quentin Snider started the turnaround. Lewis also delivered. David Levitch joined the fun, making only his second three-pointer in ACC play.
Some stories require multiple sources. This one qualifies. Lewis, obviously wandering off the leash, made a three-pointer before the buzzer to push the Cardinals ahead, 28-27, at halftime. From sub to hero, just like that.
Louisville punished Syracuse with energy and athleticism to start the second half, outscoring the Orange, 10-5, in the first four minutes. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim watched Onuaku slam a rebound dunk – and promptly demanded a timeout. It didn't matter.
Lee helped Louisville take it from there, making back-to-back three-point shots to extend Louisville’s lead to 44-35. The Orange did not get the memo that Lee should be guarded on the perimeter. He made his third three of the half to bump Louisville ahead, 49-40.
After that, it was fun time by the Cardinals. Lee and Mitchell teamed for the most spectacular play of the night.
Flashing down the right wing on a fastbreak, Lee spotted Mitchell closing fast on the left side. He knew what to do.
Lee floated a pass toward the rim. Mitchell took it from there, snatching the ball from behind his head with his right hand and then violently re-directing it through the goal for a Sports Center quality one-handed slam. Mitchell added another dunk. Jaylen Johnson did, too. Louisville fans went home happy.
Mitchell was asked if his soaring slam was good enough to earn time on Sports Center?
"I hope so," Mitchell said. "I found my openings and we communicated. Nanu knew to throw it to Damion who knew to throw it to me. We do the same thing in practice. I like catching it from the left side."
Mitchell said he did not enjoy Wednesday's dunk as much as the signature dunk he delivered against Florida State.
"Florida State," he said. "Easy ... easy."
Another home game arrives Saturday. Louisville will play Duke, the perfect opponent to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the Cardinals’ 1986 NCAA championship. Louisville beat Duke (and coach Mike Krzyzewski) to win the 1986 title in Dallas.
Four starters (Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, Jeff Hall and Herbert Crook) will attend that game as well as six reserves. Pervis Ellison, the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, will not attend because he will coach his high school team in New Jersey over the weekend.
"I don't think that we really fell into the fact that we weren't playing in the post-season," Mitchell said. "We just didn't close out two close games (at Duke and Notre Dame last week). Not having the post-season is kind of an excuse. We don't make excuses. That's a sign of weakness. We just want to come out and play our hardest for the guys that are leaving."
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