CRAWFORD | Pitino's quick exit belies frustration over opportunity missed at Virginia
The University of Louisville played a better first half than it has in recent trips to Virginia, but struggled as usual in the second half, particularly without two key players suspended for breaking curfew.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WDRB) — If you want a window to Rick Pitino’s mindset after his team took a 71-55 thumping at Virginia Monday night, you don’t need a sit-down confessional with Oprah or Tom Rinaldi or anyone else.
All you need is about a 10-second exchange that ended his 52-second Q&A with reporters outside the Louisville locker room. I’ll confess. I set off the fuse — unintentionally. I thought Louisville’s inability to rebound was key to it losing a grip on the second half after taking a surprising halftime lead, and was going to ask, “Mangok (Mathiang) has been your leading rebounder the last couple of weeks, but why weren’t other guys able to compete better on the glass tonight.”
Pitino, however, cut things off after the word “weeks.”
“I don't -- don't mention his name to me,” he said. “That’s all I've got. Thank you."
Mathiang, of course, is the fifth-year senior whom Pitino suspended earlier in the day for breaking curfew Saturday night, along with sophomore Deng Adel.
“It would be an understatement to say I’m extremely disappointed in both young men,” Pitino said in a statement.
He left before reporters could ask about whether he expected either player or both back for Saturday’s game against Miami. He was still fuming about Monday’s loss to Virginia.
Louisville wasn’t expected to win this game, even with the suspended players. It lost here by 22 in last season’s finale, with a full complement of scholarship players. Monday night, with seven scholarship guys, the Cardinals hung tough for about one half.
But Pitino wasn’t looking at the bright side. I deduce that from the muffled shouts that sneaked through the locker room walls.
This was not a coach who took a moral victory from the way his team played in the first half. The players who sat in that locker room, dejected, after Pitino left, didn’t look like a group that had heard a pep talk.
I’ve known Pitino long enough to know that rather than say something he’d regret, he just walked away.
Here’s the problem with all of this , the curfew breaking, the loss, the frustration. To paraphrase Crash Davis from the film, “Bull Durham,” you don’t (mess) with a streak.
Louisville was cruising, albeit against inferior teams. But it was playing its best offense of the season, and Pitino thought he had a plan that could produce a victory at Virginia and set Louisville on a course for a potential No. 1 seed, even place the team in contention for an ACC title.
Instead, he loses two indispensable players, suffers a full-on offensive reversion in the second half, and has to deal with the fallout of that discipline before a big home game on Saturday. It’s a headache he did not need, after weathering three weeks without his starting point guard.
The way Louisville played the first half is testament to its improvement over the past three weeks.
The Cards scored more points in the first half Monday than two full-strength U of L teams had scored in the first halves of their two previous trips to Charlottesville combined. They moved the ball. They made 9 of 13 shots in one stretch. They diced up one of the nation’s best defenses. The shot 46.7 percent, didn’t foul too much, and forced seven Virginia turnovers without pressing full court.
For a few minutes, this looked like it could be one of those miraculous Pitino games, where he becomes MacGyver and beats a Top 15 team on the road with Ryan McMahon, Jay Henderson and a roll of duct tape. The Cards led 34-32 at half.
Then Virginia got a couple of big baskets before halftime. And the Cavaliers gathered themselves, and rededicated themselves to defending the paint on one end and getting into it on the other. And Louisville had no answers.
“We took really good shots in the first half, moved the basketball,” Pitino said. “In the second half, we reverted back to AAU basketball, just jacking up shots. You know, because we’re so inexperienced, they try hard and they try to rush to get back in the game rather than taking their time. That’s an inexperienced team.”
Louisville made only 6 of 24 shots in the second half. Of those six, four were by freshman V.J. King, two by sophomore Donovan Mitchell. From the 11:36 mark till 30 seconds remained, King was the only Louisville player to score a field goal. He finished with a career-high 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Mitchell finished with 16 points on 6 of 17 shooting.
“We were moving the ball well, playing like a team, and in the second half we started, I wouldn’t say complacent, just got comfortable, started taking shots that we wound’t normally take in our offense,” Mitchell said. “And we didn’t get defensive stops. We weren’t energized as much in the second half. . . . They just out-toughed us. I’m assuming they went in the locker room and just said let’s be a tougher team, and they were. They were on the floor, they were beating us on the break, and they’re a slower-paced team, so when that happens, you know something’s wrong. We just got out-toughed in the second half. And that can’t happen.
Of the stats that will keep Pitino up at night, this one might lead the list: Virginia outrebounded Louisville 22-6 in the second half.
That’s the stat I was headed for when Pitino pulled the plug on reporters. Heck, I might’ve pulled it myself. It’s hard to explain that.
The fact is, Pitino has come here with far better teams and lost worse. But it’s the unnecessary nature of the adversity that looks to be nagging him.
“We played great in the first half,” Pitino said. “We played poorly in the second half. We couldn’t make shots. And we played poorly on the defensive end, got beat too much off the bounce. But they tried their best. And when we’re at full strength we’re a pretty good basketball team, so I can’t fault them at all.”
What happens next is that the Cards return home, presumably get Adel and Mathaing back, could conceivably also get starting point guard Quentin Snider back before Saturday’s game against Miami.
“They were undermanned today,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of Louisville. “They’ve been playing really good basketball without Quentin Snider and then the backup point guard and then they lose these guys, but they’re hard-fought games. We’ve played some of our best basketball against them, for whatever reason. I don’t know if there’s any specific thing. . . . I think we felt the importance of this game, as you do every game. We needed that. Coach Pitino is obviously a Hall of Famer. He has terrific players and I think our guys really know they have to be right to compete with Louisville.”
Mitchell continues to play well. V.J. King is emerging. Pitino needs more from Ray Spaulding and Jaylen Johnson. He needs to pick Anas Mahmoud back up after he struggled to a 1-for-6 night with just one rebound in 35 minutes.
Mitchell now is a team captain. Mathiang was demoted. Mitchell said he’ll keep preaching a simple message to his teammates: “Work on your mistakes, but play through them.”
“That’s the big thing,” he said. “You’re going to make mistakes. Keep playing hard. Make good things happen. We just move on to the next game. In this league, it’s going to be hard whether its a 30-point win or a 20-point loss. Bounce back and win.”
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