BOZICH | For Padgett, Louisville win Number 1 tense, exhausting, exhilarating
For David Padgett and his family, his opening game as Louisville's interim basketball coach was tense, exhausting and unforgettable as the Cards rallied to beat George Mason.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I’ll surrender the opening of my column to Debbie and Pete Padgett. Mom and Dad always know best.
They can supply the most insightful scouting report on how their son David’s debut as the Louisville interim basketball coach unfolded Sunday afternoon against George Mason.
As the visitors dribbled out the final seconds of Louisville’s grinding 72-61 victory, Mom, Dad and David’s sister, Melissa, exhaled and congratulated each other from their perch six rows behind the Louisville bench at the KFC Yum! Center.
Melissa flew in Sunday morning from North Carolina for her brother’s debut, but Mom and Dad are here from San Diego for the winter.
“Watching your son from the stands is tough, but after it was over I told Debbie, ‘If they’re all going to be like this, we’re going back home,’ “ Pete Padgett said.
He was kidding. He laughed.
I’ll ask him again the next time there is a game Louisville leads for less than 14 minutes. Or when there is a game the Cardinals do not tilt in their favor until less than 10 minutes remain, getting an unexpected jolt from a pair of freshmen – Darius Perry and Jordan Nwora – who shot the ball like Steph Curry making three after three after three, without missing.
There was a reason the Padgetts intercepted Perry on his way back to the court for the post-game radio show. Perry scored 17 points and pitched a perfect game, making all three of his shots from distance as well as all eight free throws. That deserved a hug from Pete and Debbie.
And one from David, too. That came in the locker room, where the Cardinals gathered around their coach for a celebratory picture. A crew from ESPN slipped into the locker room for an interview with the coach.
Louisville senior assistant athletic director Kenny Klein snatched the ball and said it will be presented to Padgett later with the appropriate information inscribed. Trophy case stuff.
There will not be enough room between the basketball seams to outline everything that happened before the game tipped at 2 p.m. and ended just after 4. This was more than your basic season opener.
Father and son shared dinner Saturday night. Basketball chat. Football chat. Relaxing chat. Try not to dwell on Opening Day chat.
“I was more nervous than he was,” Pete Padgett said.
Pete waved his right hand in a flat, horizontal motion.
“David is always like this,” Pete Padgett said.
Not always. The Louisville players said Padgett told them during Saturday’s practice that he was more juiced than normal.
Who wouldn't be?
Why wouldn’t Padgett work those throat lozenges with more gusto than usual? Even veteran coaches tell stories about popping antacids like breath mints before a game. Dean Smith was not the only former coach who used to sneak outside the arena for a smoke.
All Padgett has been asked to do is take over for a Hall of Fame coach (Rick Pitino) that he considers a friend and mentor on two days notice. Take a team that was expected to be one of the 5-to-10 best in the nation – until FBI started making announcements that led to the dismissal of Pitino and his assistants as well as questions about the eligibility of Brian Bowen, Louisville’s best freshman.
Sure, David Padgett was dealing with a central nervous system on full alert. He tried to distract himself by watching college football Saturday night.
But the arena looks bigger when you're sitting in the first chair next to the scorer's table.
“I got a couple of hours in bed but I woke up this morning and I was ready to go,” Padgett said. “But it seemed like even though it was a 2 o’clock tip, it seems like it was 9 o’clock by the time the game rolled around. I was just anxious, and I think our guys had some nerves, too.”
Pete and Debbie Padgett arrived more than a week ago to support their son. They got downtown early Sunday so Melissa could greet her brother.
Vince Tyra, Louisville’s interim athletic director, visited Padgett before the game. He thought his coach was carrying himself the way Padgett always carries himself – calmly, purposefully and confidently.
Tyra was so certain of Padgett’s poise that he even cracked a joke. He asked Pete Padgett if he was going to yell suggestions to his son during the game. Dad shook his head. No.
“Good,” Tyra said. “He’ll be able to hear me yelling from the (athletic director’s) suite.”
There were plenty of things to yell. Louisville fell behind early. The Cardinals were unable to assert themselves on the glass, even though George Mason started four players 6 feet 4 or smaller.
Two of Padgett’s veteran players, Ray Spalding and V.J. King, guys who are expected to become pros, contributed one field goal. Louisville turned the ball over and gave up a buzzer-beating three-pointer to trail, 27-24, at halftime.
Did the Cardinals look the way the Cardinals were expected to look if Pitino was still working the sidelines?
I can’t make that determination. They threw the extra pass. They forced a few shots but not an extraordinary number. The final defensive numbers were encouraging – George Mason shot less than 39 percent and turned the ball over 15 times. But the Patriots appeared to attack the middle of the Louisville defense without fear. The defense will need more heat moving forward. Much more.
It’s too soon to make any judgments, other than this one: Padgett held his poise. He appeared to keep his team confident and engaged. He talked to the officials the same way he talks to everybody – with respect. No barking in their ears. After the game, Padgett said that he respected the officials and the impossible job they're asked to do. I don't remember hearing another coach say that after a game.
Padgett had one Pitino moment on the sidelines, pounding his right foot on the floor three times after Anas Mahmoud failed to keep his hands up while chasing a shooter on the perimeter. Somebody asked Padgett if he could hear Pitino's voice in the background, a voice I'm certain people with seats around the Louisville bench were conditioned to hearing.
"No," he said. "But I did find myself stomping the floor a few times."
At halftime, after his team missed nine of its first 10 three-pointers, Padgett told his players to keep shooting. No screaming. No raging. Mostly just encouragement.
“I think all 10 of them were great wide-open looks,” Padgett said. “We just didn’t make them.
Even encouragement didn’t work – at least immediately, not until the Cardinals slipped behind by six points three times in the first eight minutes of the second half. With 12 minutes to play, Louisville trailed, 46-40. Anas Mahmoud said this is what Padgett told his players during the media timeout:
“He looked every one of us right in the eye and said, ‘Guys, calm down. We’re going to win this game. We just have to execute and focus.’ He looked like he believed it 100 percent.”
The players believed it, too. Deng Adel kept attacking the rim. Nwora made a three-pointer from the left corner. Then he made another from the same spot. And another from the left wing. Perry made something good happen every time he cocked his right arm.
This was a one-point game with 6:15 to play and a two-point game with 3:47 remaining. The Cards won by 11. It only felt as if they won by one.
“I’m glad it’s out of the way now,” Padgett said. “And most importantly, I’m glad we’re 1-0.”
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