CRAWFORD | Louisville can't escape storm at Wake in 88-81 loss; - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville can't escape storm at Wake in 88-81 loss; now faces March turbulence

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Wake Forest fans stormed the court after the Demon Deacons upset Louisville. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Wake Forest fans stormed the court after the Demon Deacons upset Louisville. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville basketball team boarded a charter plane on Wednesday, then endured a stormy flight to its 9 p.m. game at Wake Forest, touching down with a rough landing in high winds.

But the storms weren't over. As Wake Forest fans and students flooded the court in the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum after the Demon Deacons put away Louisville 88-81 Wednesday night, Louisville coach Rick Pitino had a simple explanation for his team's rough landing after taking a 14-point lead in the first half.

"Look, a lot of times you can pinpoint certain things and say this is why you lost," Pitino said, "We lost tonight because they were the better basketball team. You can make up all the excuses in the world. I could start with the officiating. I could give you five, seven things I didn't like tonight. But none of it is valid because they were the better basketball team."

The game was a class in Psychology 101. Wake Forest, motivationally speaking, held all the cards. The Deacons needed a signature win. They also felt a bit of desperation. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had them among his "first four out" of the NCAA Tournament, and Louisville represented their last regular-season chance to win a big game and get off the bubble.

"It’s fight or flight," Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. "That’s the situation that we’re in."

They had lost three league games this season when they led by double digits at the five-minute mark, most notably to Duke, an 85-83 heartbreaker at home on Jan. 28. They came into Wednesday night's game ranked No. 11 nationally in offensive efficiency, but hadn't been able to finish.

Against Louisville, they stuck the landing.

It wasn't that the Cardinals couldn't rise to the moment. It's more that they lacked a closing kick. They countered Wake Forest's early emotion with strong defensive execution and sharp offense. They hounded Wake into scoring on just eight of its first 21 possessions and led 32-18 with 9:10 left in the half.

Then the Deacons started doing what they do. They crashed the offensive boards. They went inside for layups. And they started to get to the free-throw line. Four Louisville players -- Donovan Mitchell, Ray Spaulding, Mangok Mathiang and Jaylen Johnson -- had two fouls before the final TV timeout of the half. Wake Forest responded by cutting its deficit to one by the break. It scored on 12 of its final 16 first-half possessions, and would score on 67 percent of its opportunities after falling behind early.

In some ways, Louisville never recovered from that late first-half stretch on defense. It labored to get stops after that. Pitino tried some different things. He even drew a technical for describing one official's work in colorful terms. But for the final 30 minutes of Wednesday's game, his team just couldn't manage enough stops. Louisville has now given up at least 88 points twice in the past four games. Prior to that, it had given up 88 or more twice in the past four seasons.

"We were running our offense and got in foul trouble," Pitino said. "That really took away from our basketball team, when we got in foul trouble. We didn’t execute as well when we had to go to the bench. . . . When we substituted, we lost most of our defense."

Louisville never lost contact with Wake Forest, despite falling behind by 11 just 6 1/2 minutes into the second half. And, at the final TV timeout with 3:21 left, the Cards trailed by only three and it was anyone's game.

Wake Forest grabbed it, making back-to-back threes. And that was it. Students came pouring onto the court. Louisville's players walked off, and in the locker room after the game, reassessed where they are.

Mathiang, one of the few Cardinals who has played a meaningful March, said this team needs to adjust to the madness.

"Everybody has to get what time it is," he said. "Especially since coach just stated to us before the game, it's March 1. And you know, a lot of people on this team don't understand what that means. But there's a clear view of today's game that shows you what March 1 is all about. Everybody is going to get a better seed, or trying to get into the tournament. Tonight we knew that this game meant a lot for them. It was their Senior Night, and they needed a win to get into the tournament. And we just didn't come out and play like everybody understood what that meant."

This team hasn't beaten a Top 40 opponent on its home court all season. The Cards did it only once last season. For two Final Four years, the program prided itself on being the winningest road team in the Big East. This team hasn't gotten that mentality yet.

Part of that is getting your best from your best players. Donovan Mitchell struggled for the field, making just two of nine shots to finish with seven points. Wake Forest's John Collins had 29 points and 12 rebounds, making 7 of 12 shots from the field.

""This is huge for us," Collins said. "It shows progress. Like I said, we’ve been doing that kind of stuff all year against big teams but today we got up and closed it out against a very good team. It shows that we’re moving in the right direction at a very good time."

Mitchell stared blankly ahead after the game, until approached by reporters.

"No effort. No hustle on the defensive end," he said of himself, before being asked about the NCAA Tournament. "The tournament, from what I heard, is all about the underdogs. That's all the fans cheer for. You're not going to get to play in front of your home crowd every game. And tonight was a good example of that. They outplayed us, outworked us. They locked into their game plan, and we just let them on defense. . . . We have a tendency to let up. And we did that. . . . Not knocking down shots doesn't determine who I am as a player. But the way I played defense for the whole game, was pitiful, terrible. I'm upset at myself about it. It won't happen again."

It was an ugly effort, but Louisville did some decent things. It outrebonded a decent rebounding team 37-34. It made 18 of 22 free throws. Deng Adel finished with a team-best 22 points and Snider had 15, Johnson 13 and Mathiang 12.

But this game was bigger for Wake Forest. It had more at stake. Sometimes a little desperation can be good.

"They played a terrific game and probably put themselves in the NCAA Tournament by beating us, which is great to see," Pitino said.

His team is already in the NCAA Tournament. How far it gets may be determined by how it responds right now, in practice over the coming days, and at home against Notre Dame on Saturday.

I have been in this situation where I'd have sworn that the postseason assignment of following the Cards was going to be a short one. After losing four of their last six, including a senior night loss to South Florida, I thought the 2012 team was done.

Two years ago, when they lost at home to Notre Dame and were bounced from the ACC Tournament by North Carolina eight days later, I figured it'd be a short March. They came within a free throw of making the Final Four.

For me, a win at Wake Forest Wednesday was going to mean that Louisville had put things together for a postseason run. They would have turned back a talented offensive team in a must-win situation on Senior Night on its home floor.

The Cards couldn't do that. That doesn't mean they won't make a postseason run. It does mean they still haven't risen above the turbulence quite yet. Another theme the team will begin to hear quite a bit from Pitino is that, when it comes to college basketball, you're only remembered for how you perform on your final exam.

And test time is fast approaching.

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