CRAWFORD | Louisville beats fire (and Virginia Tech) with fire t - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville beats fire (and Virginia Tech) with fire to set up first-place ACC showdown

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — At a time of year when everyone is in need of signature wins, the University of Louisville basketball team is a big, flat peace of parchment.

That was the case for Miami three games ago, and Syracuse last week, and certainly Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Hokies beat Virginia at home last week, and a road win over Louisville might’ve been the game they needed to lock down an NCAA Tournament bid, if they haven’t already.

And they played like it. Rick Pitino came away from Saturday’s 94-90 win over Virginia Tech grateful, but shaking his head over his team’s defense. When he takes a second look, he may shake his head more at the way Virginia Tech executed on offense.

The Hokies made 17 three-point shots in 26 tries. In a stretch to end the first half and begin the second, they made 13 out of 14 threes.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it. No, wait. A check of my memory banks says I have.

The last time a Louisville opponent made 17 threes, Kevin Pittsnogle and West Virginia made 18 of 24 threes in regulation before missing three in overtime in Louisville’s 93-85 overtime win in the 2005 West Regional Final in Albuquerque, N.M.

That Louisville team had to come from 20 down after WVU made seven threes in a row. On Saturday, with Virginia Tech on fire, there was no such crisis, because this Louisville team is making its move on offense earlier than some of its predecessors.

In the postgame handshake, Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams told Pitino he thinks this is his best team. Pitino thanked him, but said no, he didn’t think so. Then Williams told him, according to Pitino, that this is the most “together” team of Pitino’s that he’s ever faced. And he’s faced a few.

“And that’s true,” Pitino said, “Their attitude and desire is great.”

Virginia Tech put on an offensive show, with all those three pointers, and 59.2 percent shooting in the game. But don’t ignore the other side of the stat sheet, because Louisville played about as well on offense as a team can play.

The Cardinals scored on 65 percent of their possessions (39 out of 60). In the second half they scored on 21 out of 31 possessions. For the game, they scored 1.567 points per possession. They turned it over only three times. They rebounded 48 percent of their missed shots (16 out of 33 misses), and held a 26-3 edge in second-chance points. They did all of that without scoring a fast-break point (or allowing one).

“They (Virginia Tech) made tough shots,” Pitino said. “They made long shots. They have great shooters. They're a dangerous, dangerous team. They're doing a great job right now. You know, I'm really impressed with their team. What they're doing and beating Virginia, they're a great team. We just played great offense tonight and that's why we came away with a victory, but I've been around this game too long. It's nice to score 94 points. It's nice play this, but it's better in AAU basketball than it is in college. It's fun for the fans, it's fun for the fans, but for a 64 year-old guy who takes pride in defense, it's not fun. The win is fun.”

Virginia Tech simply dissected the Louisville zone. Pitino, aware that his team sent the Hokies to the free-throw line 38 times in a game last season, knew he couldn’t afford a repeat with V.J. King out with a thigh bruise and Tony Hicks still sidelined by a broken finger. The Cardinals were playing zone early in possessions, then switching out of it and trying to match up late in the shot clock.

But Virginia Tech was attacking, getting the matchups they wanted, or finding players who got lost when it was time to match up. They got more open threes than Louisville generally gives up in a month. And didn’t just get them — but they made them.

But the undersized Hokies couldn’t compete with Louisville on the boards, particularly after losing 6-6 sophomore Chris Clarke, who gave them some size and was the team’s leading rebounder.

“I think Louisville, time will tell, I think Louisville can and potentially will win the league,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “I think Louisville is a one-seed, no worse than a two-seed. This is one of the best arenas in the country. Coach Pitino has been in the Hall of Fame however long and deservingly so. He's ahead in every way. So we have our hands full if we are playing with a full boat. . . . I think if we don't have a hot shooting night, they beat us by 40. I think the hot shooting night allowed it to be a game.”

He wasn’t the only one talking that way Saturday. Seth Greenburg, former Virginia Tech coach and current ESPN analyst, said via Twitter: “Louisville is the best team in the ACC. They will win the ACC and be a No. 1 seed.”

Whatever number the seed, Louisville was hurting in the numbers department Saturday.

Pitino went primarily with six players — with Ryan McMahon and Ray Spalding seeing minutes off the bench. For the most part, it was Quentin Snider and Donovan Mitchell at guard and Deng Adel and Jaylen Johnson at forward. All four of those players were on the court for 30 minutes or more. Mangok Mathiang played 26 minutes. Spalding and McMahon nine minutes each.

The Cards outscored Virginia Tech 34-20 in the paint. They made 12 of 22 threes themselves. They scored 11 points off turnovers.

There have been seasons when they couldn’t win a game with offense. This season, they’re more than able. Mitchell led the Cards with 26 points, while Snider had 19 and Johnson 16, to go with a team-best eight rebounds.

“Donovan is an elite level player,” Williams said. “Elite level. He can score on all three levels. Great body. Great body control. Very physical. Because he's so strong, he's deceptively, in my opinion, an elite level athlete. He's very good.”

Now Louisville turns its attention to North Carolina, and Pitino turns his attention back to defense.

“I think, if we don't start playing better defense, we're all going to be on vacation early,” Pitino told reporters of his team’s defense. “You are going to be covering somebody else. If you're impressed with that, you're not watching the game I'm watching. . . . They ran a Miami play that we practiced all week, and they got wide open, wide open (along the baseline). It was amazing to me, amazing to me, because this is the best group of students in the classroom we had. As far as that transferring to the basketball court, this table pays attention more. Right, table?”

The loss was enough to drop the Cardinals four spots in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings. But it didn’t drop them in the RPI or Pomeroy computer rankings. And in the ACC standings, they’ll go to Chapel Hill with a chance to play for first place in the ACC.

"I so take a lot of joy, okay. I really do,” Pitino said, when it was mentioned that he was taking a victory pretty hard. “I've got a lot. But I've been telling you guys all along, and you keep looking at the Pomeroy or the stats or whatever it may be and thinking oh, coach is wrong, he’s just geeking us up. But no, we are not a good defensive team. We’ve got to become that. So I take a lot of joy in wins.  If you were to say to me 22-5 with our schedule, I would of said give it to me right now, I’ll take it. I won’t sign with the devil, but I'll take it. Right now to have this with the schedule we're playing is awesome. And the fact that we won with offense tonight is a great thing because we rarely in the past four years have won with offense and tonight we did. . . . We are 22-5. We are going to step into North Carolina and play for first place and that to me is an amazing feat by these young men in that locker room.”

MILESTONE WIN: With Saturday's victory, Louisville collected the program's 1,800th win over its 103 seasons. UofL is 10th in the nation with a 1,800-897 record.

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