LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — After last week’s disappointing loss at North Carolina, the University of Louisville basketball team plane landed in Louisville around one o’clock in the morning, but sophomores Donovan Mitchell and Ray Spalding didn’t go back to Minardi Hall.

They broke off on a side trip — to the Yum! Center practice facility on campus. Mitchell said the two went to practice free-throw shooting. But the sophomore captain had more in mind than that.

While they shot free-throws, the two players who came in together as freshmen talked about basketball, the loss at North Carolina, and the rest of this season and beyond.

“We still got free throws up, but it was more of a talk,” Mitchell said. “I told him, ‘Just play the game. Have confidence. Don’t let any missed rebounds or a loss take your confidence away. Just come back and play the game like an animal.’ And he came out and had 18 and 11. It just shows he took that conversation to heart. He said, ‘Look, I’m a 6-9 guy with a 7-5 wingspan and I can be strong, get rebounds and finish in the paint.’ And he did that today.”

That’s what a captain does. And it’s what Spalding did, 18 points, 11 rebounds, a handful of deflections and a renewed outlook after the Cardinals handed Syracuse their worst loss ever in ACC play, 88-68 in the KFC Yum! Center.

Spalding hadn’t logged 20 minutes in a game since Jan. 21. He hadn’t scored in double-digits since scoring 11 against Duke on Jan. 14. But he matched a season-high against Syracuse, and logged his second career double-double and first in ACC play after being inserted in the starting lineup by Pitino for the sixth time this season.

“Starting lineups are irrelevant to me, but when you get two rebounds in a game and you lose, I like to change things,” Pitino said after the game. “If you're a front-court player and you want a lot of minutes, you've got to rebound the ball. Certainly Ray grabbing 11 rebounds and Anas [Mahmoud] grabbing nine helped us have a 39-28 (rebounding) edge.”

The big question, of course, is will this last? The Cardinals played well on both ends Sunday. They dogged Syracuse into 35.7 percent shooting and 16 turnovers. They pressed the Orange for the purpose of wearing them down, and that worked. And they executed well on offense, both in the half court (53.8 percent shooting in the first half) and against Syracuse’s full-court pressure (59.4 percent second half shooting, 19-32 from the field, with 13 of those 19 field goals being layups or dunks.)

Now they have to replicate that effort against a very good Wake Forest team in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Wednesday night.

And consistency has been an issue. With Pitino’s best teams, you see guys coming off the bench and contributing the things they do best. In the case of this team, you’d have Spalding rebounding, getting deflections and making shots in the paint, Jaylen Johnson crashing the offensive glass and defending, Mangok Mathiang rebounding and defending, Anas Mahmoud passing, blocking shots and scoring in the post. From the backcourt, you’d get threes from Ryan McMahon and a little of everything from David Levitch and V.J. King.

Instead, you’re seeing players have a good game or two, then fade back into the crowd.

“I think the whole team has been inconsistent. It's not just Ray,” Pitino said. “I think, Jaylen had three great games, and then he had two rebounds against North Carolina. Tonight, he didn't rebound the basketball. Mangok's had two or three great games. That's been the problem with us. We haven't had consistency on the backboard from the same players, but the good thing is you've got enough players that you can substitute and find out who's the guy that's going to get the job done."

If the Cards start getting it from everybody, they could be special.

It wasn’t a total awakening. The Cards still had 15 turnovers and made just 13 of 23 free throws. But they dogged a good offensive team, and after Syracuse went to a full-court press, got some good open-court passing from Mahmoud and aggressive finishes at the rim from Deng Adel to pull away.

And they got some momentum back. Syracuse was coming off a big win at home over Duke. Louisville was low after losing a shot at the ACC championship in last Wednesday’s loss at North Carolina.

But they were able to bounce back with energy and enthusiasm. It’s something Pitino has done a good job with throughout his career. According to Louisville stat guru Kelly Dickey, when the Cards are facing a team at home that they played earlier in the season on the road, he’s 25-0. Notre Dame will visit in that same scenario next weekend. He also notes that their 22-game winning streak against teams not ranked in the AP poll is the nation’s longest.

“The great thing about coach is his paranoia,” Mitchell said. “I noticed early, against teams we should beat, he really has that paranoia. It’s a good paranoia. He’s so focused on the little things, and if we continue to focus on those, we should be fine.”

About Mitchell. He scored 25 points, and made 6 of 10 three-point tries. He also grabbed five rebounds — taking to heart urging from Pitino for the guards to help on the boards — and dished out four assists.

“He can really shoot it,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He's good with the ball and he's athletic, but he's really shooting the ball well. That was the difference tonight, his shooting. He really shot the ball great.”

Quentin Snider added 12 points and six assists without a turnover. Adel had 17 points. Mahmoud had eight points, nine rebounds and four steals.

Louisville remains in a second-place tie in the ACC, with two games remaining. One more win will clinch a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. The Cardinals now rank No. 4 in the Ratings Percentage Index, with the No. 1 strength of schedule. They are No. 5 in the Ken Pomeroy ratings.

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