CRAWFORD | Louisville launches into postseason on a high note, b - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville launches into postseason on a high note, beats Notre Dame 71-64

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's not that Rick Pitino hasn't had teams play tough schedules before. He's had several teams play Top 5 schedules in the past decade. But he hadn't had one with so little proven experience face a schedule like the one the Cardinals encountered this season.

Louisville beat No. 19-ranked Notre Dame 71-64 on Saturday to finish the regular season at 24-7. It was the Cardinals' eighth straight game against a team in Ken Pomeroy's Top 50, and their sixth straight game against a team ranked in the top 32 in offensive efficiency by Pomeroy.

The Cards held a clinical Notre Dame offense to its second-lowest point total of the season. They pounded the ball down low to senior center Mangok Mathiang, who scored a career-high 18 points and added 11 rebounds.

And now, the Cards head to the postseason with a little momentum, after bouncing back from a seven-point loss at Wake Forest during the week.

"Our schedule this year has been a meat grinder. It really has been and I think it's helped us evolve," Pitino said after the game. "I was hoping that it would end this way. I was really hoping. I was hoping I didn't bury them mentally or physically. I didn't expect to have this type of record, I didn't expect to be 24-7, I was hoping to be 22-9 or 21-10, something like that with this type of schedule, but they got through it, they did a great job and it's made us a much better basketball team because of it."

It came down to this on Saturday, as it will throughout the ACC Tournament, and into the NCAA Tournament: Are the Cards ready to make the big plays? You can talk all you want about statistics and metrics and tendencies. All those things are important, but at some point, someone has to find it within themselves to make a big shot or grab a key rebound.

On Saturday, Louisville was ready.

Quentin Snider was ready. He hit back-to-back threes at the five-minute mark to put Louisville up by six.

Deng Adel was ready. Pitino called his number during a timeout with Louisville up two, and he drilled a three from the top with 37 seconds left to put the Cards up five.

Donovan Mitchell was ready. He made four straight free throws, a pair with 22 seconds left and two more with eight seconds left, to put the game away.

Mitchell finished with 20 points, Snider 17 and Adel had six.

"I think (Snider) has tremendous moxie," Pitino said. "I think Q  has no fear of failure, which is great. I don't think Donovan does either and I don't think Deng does. In the beginning of the year, Deng (Adel) did and Donovan (Mitchell) a little bit, but all three of those guys I don't think have fear of failure. I think they have fear when they make a defensive mistake but I don't think they have fear on offense which is what you want to see."

In the end, it will come down to this. Louisville will have to play solid defense, yes, and rebound. But it will come down to making a big shot, getting a stop at the right moment. The top teams nationally are so close to each other that only a possession or two, a free throw here, a turnover there, may be the difference.

"Adel's three over a Steve Vasturia challenge was the difference," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I love our group. We gave ourselves a chance. It was hard to score against Louisville's defense. They're really hard to deal with, with their length. Again, they made some big plays and big shots when they had to. . . . I figured let's go zone and I want somebody to hit a jump shot to beat us instead of a tip dunk or a drive. And he hit it, so you take your hat off to him in an afternoon like this."

Louisville's game plan was simple. Go inside for easy baskets. Sophomore Anas Mahmoud got great looks early, but went 1-for-4. Pitino brought Mathiang off the bench and he gave the Cards an instant spark.

"It was the last time I would get to play here, and I wanted to leave it all out there," he said. "I played with a lot of emotion."

The game was too important to fiddle around with the starting lineup. Pitino didn't start Mathiang or fellow seniors David Levitch or Tony Hicks. He needed a good start. He didn't quite get it. Notre Dame held a six-point lead just six minutes in, but would never lead by more.

It was a chess match. Both coaches were calling timeouts to set up defenses with more than eight minutes to play.

Pitino didn't even think about using his matchup zone defense. Notre Dame is one of the top offenses in the nation against zone. The Cards worked all week on man-to-man, and did their best with it.

The Irish got 20 points from Bonzie Colson and 17 from V.J. Beachem. Point guard Matt Farrell had 11 points and Vasturia finished with just eight.

Louisville opened the second half by scoring on just three of its first 13 possessions. The Cards scored on 14 of 22 the rest of the game, including four of their last six. They went 14 of 16 from the free-throw line, and have now shot 84 percent (32 of 38) over their past two games.

And they are going to somewhat familiar territory. Brooklyn is the home of the ACC Tournament this season, and Pitino and his players are eager to get to New York, where the program enjoyed Big East Tournament success. More than that, they go with a good feeling, after a frustrating loss at Wake Forest and not playing as well as they'd hoped in a loss at Chapel Hill.

"It's going to be great for me," said Mitchell, who is from nearby Greenwich, Conn. "I have people texting all the time about wanting to come watch."

It's going to be tough to watch anyone for long. If the season was a meat grinder, the tournament is a meat grinder with the speed turned up. The Cards could face Duke or Virginia in their first tournament game. So much for easing in as a Top 4 seed.

As it stands, the Cards officially finish in a tie for second in the ACC. Louisville was ranked No. 13 in the preseason. The Cardinals were picked to finish fourth in the ACC preseason poll, and they will take the No. 4 seed into the tournament. The Cards will face either Duke, or the winner of an opening-round matchup between Clemson and N.C. State. Tipoff for Louisville's game is Thursday at 2 p.m.

The Cardinals have gotten through the meat grinder; now Pitino hopes that will help them navigate the postseason. He said it helped them navigate a tough win over Notre Dame.

"I think the schedule we have played has prepared us for these moments," Pitino said. "I knew it was an inexperienced team, but when you play Baylor, Wichita State, a healthy Indiana, Kentucky, Purdue, the Big Ten champions, and of course the ACC meat grinder, you are prepared for these moments, and these big moments where you have to make the shot. Quentin Snider came up big as well as Donovan and Deng. . . . The schedule helped us evolve."

The Cardinals finish the season with an RPI of No. 3, pending the outcomes of late games Saturday. They will be playing for a high NCAA Tournament seed. They are out of the meat grinder, but now into the pressure cooker.

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