CRAWFORD | Louisville escapes Grand Canyon crazies in tougher-th - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville escapes Grand Canyon crazies in tougher-than-expected 79-70 win

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I guess you had to be there.

Playing a Grand Canyon team that was missing four starters from the roster coach Dan Majerle thought he would have in the preseason, the No. 14-ranked University of Louisville basketball team executed late to escape with a 79-70 victory before the largest crowd they’ve ever had at GCU Arena, 7,438.

On the one hand, you can praise a road win in an amped atmosphere — and Pitino did. Students had been camping out for tickets for 48 hours in anticipation of the first big-name opponent to come to the arena since the program began its transition to NCAA Division I.

Pitino agreed to the game out of friendship with coach Majerle and university advisor Jerry Colangelo. But when the Cards trailed at halftime, he might’ve lost a few friends back at home.

DeWayne Russell, a 5-11 redshirt junior point guard, hung 42 points on the Cardinals — the second-most ever scored against a Louisville basketball team. If the Cards’ hadn’t gotten some big-time first-half minutes from Matz Stockman and some positive offensive production down the stretch from freshman V.J. King, it might’ve been a disastrous visit.

“By far — not even close — this arena is the toughest place to play I’ve seen in college basketball since I’ve been coaching, because they orchestrate things like the pros,” Pitino told Bob Valvano on his Louisville Radio Network postgame show sponsored by Tom Drexler Plumbing. “Even during timeouts, I moved the thing to the middle of the court, they still couldn’t hear me. . . . For Grand Canyon University, to have this kind of spirit is unbelievable. For us, if we would have lost, it would’ve been a major disaster. To win in this environment is a major plus.”

Pitino noted some recent stumbles by major programs on the road against lesser-known competition.

“This was Fort Wayne,” he told Valvano. “This was the biggest game in the history of this 5-6 year span at this school. We showed the (players) clips of Northern Iowa playing North Carolina last year. We showed them clips of Fort Wayne-Indiana, and said, they’re going to storm the floor. It’s the biggest game in the history of the school. You can either come away with a victory in their biggest game, or you can be Indiana or North Carolina.”

Now, a couple of caveats. North Carolina lost at Northern Iowa early last season, playing without guard Marcus Paige. UNI went on to make the NCAA Tournament (in fact, the previous spring, Louisville had beaten Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament third round in Seattle — a game in which Northern Iowa had been a 2 1/2-point favorite).

As for Fort Wayne and Indiana, Fort Wayne is 7-2 and one of the top-scoring teams in the nation at the moment. Yes, it was an upset, but Fort Wayne is ranked 57 spots higher than Grand Canyon in the Ken Pomeroy ratings.

Grand Canyon was coming off a 12-point loss to SIU-Edwardsville in this same GCU Arena — the same Edwardsville team that Indiana beat by 23 Saturday.

But Russell, who had played in only four GCU games this season, had 26 in that loss, and came into Saturday’s game averaging 24.3 points per game.

He made 14 of 27 shots, 3 of 6 three-pointers and went 11-for-16 from the free-throw line. Pitino threw everybody he had against him at one point or another, but nobody could handle him.

“It's been a long time since I've seen a guard performance like that against our defense, so it was very, very impressive,” Pitino said.

Louisville played without center Anas Mahmoud, who is still recovering from an elbow to the head against Purdue. But Stockman logged 10 impressive first-half minutes, going 3-for-3 from the field to lead all Louisville scorers with 10 points at halftime.

In the second, King scored 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting from the field, and finished with 14.

From the standpoint that they didn’t lose, the game was a success for the Cardinals.

“This will make us much better,” Pitino said of the experience.

But not being able to put away a clearly overmatched opponent — even in a charged road environment — does leave a red flag in the air for the Cardinals.

Of the second half, Pitino said, “We just executed offensively great. We ran some plays on rolls that we felt we could disguise because of the way they were playing it. We made great passes. We shot almost 55 percent in the second half. Our passing was great. In the first half, it wasn't as good. In the second half, we really did a fabulous job. . . . We got a tremendous lift from Matz Stockman. I never thought I'd see the day where I would call timeouts and run plays for him. I never thought in my coaching career it would happen. And it did. And he executed it beautifully.”

The Cardinals have survived Grand Canyon. Now they’ll face Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam and head home.

No, the Cards return to the KFC Yum! Center on Wednesday, where they’ll face Southern Illinois.

“We don't usually come out - two-for-ones. We've done it once before,” Pitino said. “I just have so much respect for Dan that I did it. I'm glad I did it because we got more out of this game than any game we've played this season. We had to be tough to win this game.”

Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved. Quotes via Louisville Radio Network and Grand Canyon sports information.

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