CRAWFORD | Late fade: Louisville loses second-half lead, and game to Michigan in NCAA
Eric Crawford's column on Louisville's season-ending loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament.
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- The final half of basketball of the University of Louisville basketball season will linger for these players and this coaching staff, because it was like several other pivotal halves this season.
Up 20 with just over 16 minutes to play in the second half against Baylor. Loss. Up 11 with 13 minutes to go against Duke in the ACC Tournament. Loss. And up nine with 14 to play against Michigan in the second round of the NCAA Tournament . . . well, you know how the story ends.
Michigan 73, Louisville 69.
There are some x’s and o’s to get to, as you might imagine in a game coached by Rick Pitino and John Beilein.
In the final analysis, this Louisville team needs to look, yes, into the mirror, but also into the final 10 minutes of losses against great competition, and figure out what is required to finish.
“It’s a common theme,” said sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell, then repeated it. “It’s a common theme. We’ve got to become so focused on not becoming complacent in games. It’s one thing to say it and another to do it, and we haven’t done it at all. You get a lead like that, in the big games, we didn’t do it. That’s what hurts. And it’s so many little things.”
Nobody wants to hear about little things.
But when Louisville did the little things right in this game, it controlled it. The Cardinals’ game plan was to contain Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr., play out on the Wolverines’ lethal three-point attack, and take away the right-hand drives to the basket, where Michigan statistically does most of its damage off the dribble.
The Cards opened a seven-point lead early and held an eight-point advantage at halftime. Michigan shot just 11-30 (36.7 percent) in the half and made just 3 of 11 three-point tries. Louisville had outscored Michigan 18-14 in the paint.
But in the second half, Michigan changed its spacing, looked to drive to the basket instead of shoot threes, and scored on 7 of its first 10 possessions when Louisville guards started to get caught in screens and were switched onto Michigan bigs like Mo Wagner or D.J. Wilson
In the second half, Michigan would hold its own in the paint, but shot 63 percent for the half.
The Cards led 47-38 after a Mangok Mathiang layup with 14:46 left, but Michigan grabbed momentum with six quick points, and began to reel the Cards in.
“We played really good defense in the first half because we switched intelligently, and we took away the strong hand. You have to take away Michigan. They're a dominant right-hand team, and we concentrated on taking away Walton because he's been on such a run, the right hand,” Pitino said. “Then we gave him his right hand on a couple of crucial plays. That's what it comes down to, a couple of crucial plays. We made a couple of big mistakes.”
Anas Mahmoud missed a fast-break layup that would’ve extended the lead to double-digits. He went up for an easy dunk and hung a bit on the rim, snapping the ball out, to goaltend his own shot. Late in the game, with 2:02 left, and Michigan leading by two, the Cardinals forced them deep into the shot clock. They had an underneath out of bounds play with only three to shoot, but Mathiang was called for a hold before the ball ever came in.
Wagner made both free throws to put Michigan up four, then made a layup after a missed three-pointer by Snider, and the Cards were, for all practical purposes, done.
Snider had the toughest day of all. Probably the Cardinals’ most reliable shooter, he went 0-for-9 from the field, seven of them three-pointers.
If you’d have laid odds on Snider not making a shot in the game, I’m guessing you’d have gotten few takers. He’s as experienced an NCAA Tournament player as Louisville has. He’s stood at the free-throw line with a tournament game on the line and made them. He took over his freshman year when the Cards didn’t have a point guard and led the team to the Elite Eight.
“I’m sorry,” Snider said. “I had a bad day.”
Sitting next to him, Mitchell said, “Bad shooting days happen, but we know why we lost this game. We didn’t make the stops we needed to make. We made some mistakes on defense. We knew his would be a close game. In close games, the difference is in doing the little things you have to do, and we’re not doing all those yet.”
Mangok Mathiang saved the best basketball of his career for his final Louisville games. He finished with 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting and grabbed four rebounds. Mahmoud had seven points and 4 rebounds with 3 blocked shots. Deng Adel had 16 points and 5 rebounds and a thunderous first-half dunk.
Mitchell, who had climbed into the first round on several NBA Draft boards in February, finished with 19 points on 8-for-17 shooting, with seven rebounds, five assists a blocked shot and a steal. And he isn’t going anywhere.
“I’m ready to come back next year and win a national championship with this team,” Mitchell said. “And I’m ready to start work on that tomorrow.”
Pitino noted that his team had won 25 games against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. He’ll add some offensive weapons in next season’s freshman class.
“Probably the weakness of our team this year has been our defense,” Pitino said. “Our offense in the last ten days or two weeks, we've gotten significantly better because we worked inside to out. . . .
But our backcourt defense, getting over screens, has probably been the biggest weakness this year. We've got to improve in that area. . . . But really, as a coach, you can never complain when you give great effort. All year, it's been very tough on the whole team to focus in mentally on the little things that make a great defensive team.”
Michigan was led by Wagner, who finished with 26 points on 11 of 14 shooting. Pitino could’ve changed defenses. He could’ve double-teamed Wagner. He could’ve gone zone. He also could’ve been down 10 in the final two minutes instead of being in striking distance.
Sometimes as a coach, you pick your poison. Beilein would’ve prefered Pitino to adjust to give Michigan the drive and pass action it has been winning with. But unlike some of his past teams, this team is capable of winning in other ways. And it showed some defensive toughness when the game mattered most.
“They played really, really good,” Beilien said. “We could not get used to their length on offense. A lot of screens. We had to settle down to realize that we could take the ball to the basket.”
Now Louisville has to embrace those shortcomings. Containing the dribble drive. Little defensive nuances. Better shooting.
“We did it to an extent this year,” Mitchell said. “Obviously we didn’t get where we wanted to get to. . . . I'm going to tell you, this hurts worse than anything I've ever experienced in sports. We've just got to be able to use it as fuel and motivation. Just watching them celebrate. That's going to stick with me more than anything. We didn't focus in on the scouting report when the game was on the line. We did it early. We didn't stay locked in. We have to figure out a way to get locked in, and stay that way.”
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