BOZICH | Donovan Mitchell shows his inner Westbrook as Louisville tops Clemson
With Quentin Snider sidelined, Donovan Mitchell stepped forward (with a perfect first half) as Louisville defeated Clemson Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Donovan Mitchell is becoming a star, a Go-To Guy, Mr. Indispensable, the Player to Fear for the University of Louisville basketball team.
Russell Westbrook Lite?
"He's a little more explosive," Mitchell said with a wink.
Understand that after the first game that Mitchell was asked to play point guard, I made the Westbrook comparison, not Mitchell.
But when I watched what Mitchell did to Clemson in the first half of Louisville's thunderous, 92-60, victory over the Tigers in the KFC Yum! Center Thursday night, I thought Mitchell looked a guy who tried to play point guard with the fierce authority that Westbrook has shown for Oklahoma City this season.
"I love Westbrook," Mitchell said. "Love Westbrook. Love Westbrook, 100 percent.
"He never quits. I think when Kevin Durant left, the way he approached this season was just incredible. He pretty much said, ‘I’ll do it by myself.' He has pretty much. He leads the team every night. He has that competitive spirit I’ve never seen before.
"Even my favorite player, LeBron (James), says no one has his energy. He’s like an Energizer bunny, he never stops. I try to be like that a much as possible."
"But there’s only one," he said.
Mitchell did to the Tigers the same things he has done to every team he has played in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season — attack, defend, pursue, pressure and produce, powering the Cardinals with 18 points and four rebounds. No Westbrook triple-double. Mitchell had one great half (the first), not two.
The loss was Clemson's seventh this season but first by more than a dozen points. In fact, it was Clemson's largest defeat in three years.
Get this: Combined margin of defeat in Clemon's first six losses -- 37. Margin Thursday night -- 32.
"I think Louisville is the best team we've played this season," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said before leaving arena.
I checked the Clemson schedule. The Tigers have also played North Carolina, Notre Dame and Virginia.
But there is one other reason to admire what Mitchell did.
Mitchell also took control. Handled the ball more than usual. Waved teammates into the proper shots. Encouraged guys to take sensible shots. Kept everybody involved and enthusiastic.
Mitchell played as if he understands what opposing teams have started to understand — he’s one of the most talented players in the ACC.
Mitchell had to. Rick Pitino handed him the keys to the Cardinals because point guard Quentin Snider was parked on the bench for 40 minutes because he injured a hip flexor last Saturday against Duke.
Rather than shuffle a back-up guard like David Levitch, Tony Hicks or Ryan McMahon into the lineup, Pitino merely gave more responsibility to Mitchell, pairing him in the backcourt with freshman V.J. King or Deng Adel.
Mitchell made it work — and did it in a way that demanded you had to watch everything he did.
In the first half, Mitchell was more than Mr. Indispensable. He was Mr. Perfect.
Took eight shots. Made eight shots.
Clemson spurted to a 7-0 lead. Louisville looked like a team that was waiting for Snider to ditch his street clothes and report to the scorer’s bench.
Mitchell handled it. He scored Louisville’s first six points, keeping the crowd in the game and stopping Clemson from crafting a bigger lead.
"Donovan didn't want to lose," said Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson.
Mitchell showed the Tigers his entire offensive catalogue. Four of his first six baskets were layups. The other two were mid-range jumpers.
Who put the Cardinals ahead, 25-24?
Do you really have to ask? Mitchell scored that basket as well as the next one.
What Mitchell did in the final 14 seconds of the half was the kind of stuff that upgrades a guy into consideration as one of the 10 best players in the ACC.
A three-pointer followed by another crazy three at the buzzer.
Down 21-12 with less than nine minutes to play in the half, the Cardinals thundered to a 19-point turnaround to lead 41-31 at halftime.
No wonder Brownell scowled and removed his sport coat as he approached the locker room.
Mitchell was not perfect in the second half. Far from it. He missed all seven field goal attempts.
Mitchell didn't need to be perfect. He concentrated more on passing than scoring, earning three of his four assists. You can also credit Mitchell with four rebounds and three steals.
"First half he had 18," Johnson said. "The second half, even if he wasn’t scoring, he still was being a point guard."
Here is the number to remember: When Mitchell was on the court, Louisville was 34 points better than Clemson.
"I can’t be Quentin," Mitchell said. "Nobody can have his poise and control of the game. You just try to make the right plays at the right time. At the beginning of the game we needed to score and I came out and tried to be aggressive.
"In the second half I looked for the open guy because they were all focused on me."
Mitchell’s workload is unlikely to subside. Louisville plays again Saturday at 2 p.m. at Florida State, the 5-1 team that is tied with North Carolina and Notre Dame for first place in the league. Snider said after the game that he would not play.
A trip to Pittsburgh follows. Snider did not rule himself out of the Pittsburgh game but said that it was likely he would miss two weeks.
"The great thing with this win is we’ll win this game and move on to the next one," Mitchell said. "I told the guys it’s 11 (p.m.) now. At 12, we'll quit thinking about it. We'll move on to Florida State."
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