SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WDRB) — Rick Pitino has navigated the University of Louisville basketball team through the relentlessly daunting challenges of the Big East Conference.

He served one season in the American Athletic Conference and rolled to 15 wins in 18 games. Conference USA? No worries.

But this season, Louisville’s third in the turbulence of the Atlantic Coast Conference, has treated Pitino to something he did not experience in his first 15 seasons at Louisville.

An 0-2 start in conference play.

Blame Virginia, which beat Louisville last week before the Cavaliers lost their next two ACC games.

Blame Notre Dame, which made 22 of 25 free throws, as the Fighting Irish outlasted the Cardinals, 77-70, at Purcell Pavilion Wednesday night.

Of the 15 teams in the ACC, one has failed to win a game — Pitino’s squad, which is 12-3 overall.  Wins against Kentucky, Indiana and Purdue, but the only winless team in the ACC? Goodness.

It’s early. But Pitino does not embrace using that reasoning.

Why should he?

He never started 0-2 in Conference USA, the Big East or the AAC. In fact, his teams started 2-0 in league play in seven of the last eight seasons.

The last two seasons the Cards went 2-0 in the ACC — winning their road game at Wake Forest in 2015 and their first away game at North Carolina State last season.

“With this league we’ve already lost a home game, which most teams don’t,” Pitino said “We’re in dead last place right now.

“So you say, ‘It’s only two games in.’ That's true. But you’ve got to be road tough. For (seven) years we were the best road team in the Big East …

“It’s a must-win game Saturday. We’ve got to get Georgia Tech.”

This is a game Louisville could have won just as it was a game Notre Dame could have won. Most conference games sit in that category, decided by two or three possessions by each team.

Turnovers were essentially a wash. So was the rebounding. Both teams blocked seven shots. Louisville was whistled for 21 fouls, four more than the Irish. Points in the paint? Notre Dame had 34, the Cards 32.

“I feel like we could have come up with a victory,” said Anas Mahmoud, who blocked six shots for the Cards. “We started off a little slow. We tried to play catch-up the rest of the game. That’s not our style.

“Every time we got close, we should have dug a little deeper and just stepped on them but we didn’t play like that today. We didn’t play Louisville basketball defense.”

“We didn’t have each other’s backs defensively,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led the Cards with 20 points. 

“Offensively we had all the confidence in the world. We weren’t there to help (defensively) because we were so worried about the three.”

Notre Dame won because the Irish refused to settle for three-point shots. They attacked the rim and prospered at the free throw line — just as the scouting report suggested they would.

Notre Dame is a team that Kyle Macy would love. They make their free throws. They started the night ranked first nationally in free throw shooting (making better than 84 percent) and got better. 

They took 25. They made 22. They scored 11 of their last 13 points at the line, making one field goal in the final 6:12.

The Irish survived a lack of depth and a nearly complete no-show by their second-leading scorer (V.J. Beacham, who had 2 points) because Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia spread the floor and delivered 64 of the 77 points that Mike Brey’s team scored. Vasturia (24 points) was especially clutch, making nine of his 15 attempts.

But enough about Notre Dame.

What were the three factors that stopped Louisville from winning a game that Pitino said the Cards played well enough to win?

Pitino started with defense. He did not like the way Notre Dame dribblers went past his guys on the first bounce.

If it happens after the second or third bounce, a teammate can clean up the mistake. On the first bounce, Pitino said it is a problem. That explains Notre Dame’s 25 free throw attempts.

Remember Saturday against Indiana when Deng Adel and Donovan Mitchell shot the ball like Luke Hancock?

They reverted to their earlier season form against Notre Dame.

Against IU, Adel and Mitchell were 7 of 14 from distance. Against Notre Dame, they were 3 of 16. 

In fact, Louisville attempted more than 42 percent of its field goal attempts from the three-point line. The shots did not fall. The Cards made only seven, finishing at 25.9 percent.

In the final two minutes, Louisville could not overcome two killer turnovers.

Down 69-68, Louisville had the ball with less than 90 seconds to play. Ray Spalding cruised into the lane but saw Mahmoud flashing to the basket.

About a minute earlier, Quentin Snider found Mahmoud for a dunk.

This time Spalding tried to make the right play. He simply sailed the pass over Mahmoud’s hands.


“He’s wide open,” Pitino said. “The play before Anas was wide open for a dunk. Ray just threw the ball way too high. I don’t know who could catch that pass. He should ball fake and throw a legitimate pass. He was wide open.”

“Those mistakes happen in a game,” Mahmoud said. “I tried. I almost tipped it. I couldn’t get it.”

Notre Dame responded with two free throws.

The Cards had another possession to tie the game. Deng Adel lost the ball to Beacham. A basket by Vasturia bumped Notre Dame ahead by five. Brey’s team closed the game with poise at the foul line.

“There was nowhere to go driving that I could see,” Adel said. “The easy thing would have been to reverse the ball. It was a learning experience for me.”

On to Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have split two ACC games in a most bizarre way — beating North Carolina by a dozen and losing to Duke by 53 Wednesday night.

“I think we played a good enough game to win the game tonight,” Pitino said. “But again if you make it a free-throw shooting contest with Notre Dame, you’re going to lose, especially at home.

“We could be a dangerous team in March if we don’t fall too far behind. We’ve got to get wins right now. We can’t lose any more games at home and we’ve got to get wins.”

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