LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The David Padgett era, I suppose we can call it that, until we know what else to call it, the future being uncertain, began on Sunday at the University of Louisville with a late-arriving crowd at the KFC Yum! Center.

The after-church arrivals probably wondered if they’d hustled into the right arena. The Cardinals, in their first game post-Rick Pitino, trailed George Mason from the opening tip. Experienced guys who had been rocks during a stormy preseason all of a sudden looked jittery. Shots that generally fall were clanging off.

The Cards made just one of their first 11 three-point tries. They missed seven jump shots in a row before finally making a three, then missed nine more in a row. They trailed 27-24 at the half. Of their eight field goals, six were layups or dunks.

In the locker room, the interim coach in his first game told everybody to calm down. He liked the passing. He liked the movement. He liked the shot selection. Control what you can control, he told his team, as he has told them since the day the FBI altered the landscape for this program.

In the second half, the Cards heated up, dug in on defense, and scratched out a 72-61 victory. In the locker room after the game, they gathered around Padgett for a photo to commemorate his first win. Sports information director Kenny Klein procured the game ball for him.

And Padgett, no doubt, will sleep a little better.

How should U of L fans sleep, after a tougher-than-expected scrape by a George Mason team that beat Lafayette by only two? Let’s put that down as to be determined.

Four takeaways from Padgett’s first win:

1). UNEXPECTED JITTERS. In the locker room after the game, few U of L upperclassmen were willing to chalk up their offensive struggles to nerves. But they looked anything but comfortable to start the game. They did execute their offensive patterns, but the shots didn’t go up with confidence. For a team whose strength coming into the game was supposed to be its offense, that throws up a red flag.

“First game is always a hard game,” junior Anas Mahmoud said. “We’re nervous. Coach Padgett was nervous. The whole coaching staff was nervous. Even the fans were nervous. Nobody knew what to expect. It’s a whole new staff and new team. First game is always a hard game, and we thought it would be.”

Mahmoud finished with six points and a game-high nine rebounds, but went 2 of 7 from the line. Other starters found the going tough offensively. V.J. King went 0-3 from the field and scored all of his five points from the free-throw line. Quentin Snider was 1-of-6 from the field in the first half, but finished with 10 points and six rebounds, and ran the team well. Ray Spalding went just 1-of-6 from the field and fouled out with two points and seven rebounds.

“Ray and V.J. just might be pressing, for whatever reason, a bit too much, but they'll be fine,” Padgett said. “They are too talented. They are two kids that work too hard. They are going to be fine."

2). FRESHMEN TO THE FRONT. With the Cardinals in need of a lift, they got it from their freshman class. The group – Darius Perry, Jordan Nwora, Malik Williams, Lance Thomas and, until he was withheld over eligibility concerns, Brian Bowen – have nicknamed themselves “Louie 21.”

The “21” refers to their graduation year, always a tricky proposition in this age of early departures. Still, Louie 21 had a memorable debut at Louisville.

Perry finished with 17 points, the fourth-most ever from a U of L freshman in his first game. He was 3-3 from the field, all three-pointers, and 8-8 from the line. Nwora was also 3-3 from the field, all from three-point range, and made one of two free throws. Malik Williams, who logged only four minutes, didn’t get to take a shot from the field but made a pair of big free-throws with 1:29 left to stretch Louisville’s lead to seven, which helped the Cards put the game away.

Most impressive among the freshman stats: In the game’s final 9:30, freshmen scored 21 of the Cards’ final 26 points, and went 9-10 from the line, including 6-6 in the final 1:29.

“I think it says a lot about this group,” Williams said. “I was happy I could step up and make those free throws when I hadn’t gotten to take a shot yet. Darius came in with a defensive mindset and knocked down free throws. Jordan made some big threes.”

3). ADEL POWERS THROUGH. It wasn’t a highlight-reel game for Deng Adel, but it was a solid game. He was the only Cardinal to make a basket in the game’s first 7 ½ minutes, and had half of the team’s eight first-half field goals.

He went just 1-5 from three-point range for the game, but still finished with 20 points to go with four rebounds and three assists. He took 17 of the Cardinals’ 48 field-goal attempts and looked as close to a go-to player as the team had.

“Deng, even though he wasn't shooting the ball well, the most impressive thing to me so far has been the way he lets the game come to him,” Padgett said. “He is not trying to force it too early. I know he missed a couple easy ones to start the game, but he stays with it.”

4). PADGETT STAYS EVEN KEEL. In his first game, Padgett largely left the officials alone. He came out a handful of times to argue or question calls, but did it fairly calmly.

“Refs have the most thankless jobs in sports,” he said. “. . . They’re going to make wrong calls. They’re going to make right calls.”

Where his no-panic personality paid off, however, was in the locker room, and the huddle. Trailing at half, Padgett told his team to be confident.

“I told them to relax,” he said. “We're 1-for-10 in threes. All 10 threes were wide open looks. We're a very good shooting team. Law of averages, it will start to fall. We were 7-of-10 in the second half, so there you go. I said 7-of-8 actually in the locker room, but we were 7-of-10. You’ve just got to stay patient. The most important thing is keep getting good looks, and B: even if you can't make it, you can't let it affect your defense. I thought for the most part, we held true to that."

At the under-12 media timeout of the second half, with his team still down, Padgett went back to those themes. He did say he considered going zone, with George Mason picking up fouls and getting to the line with drives to the basket in the second half, but decided not to.

“I actually thought about going zone there for a minute in the second half when we couldn't keep them in front of us off the bounce,” Padgett said. “I just said, 'Look, they are going to start missing, we will hit a couple and it will even out, so just stay with it.' We will mix it up (on defense), we just haven't worked on our zone very much, but we wanted to really get the young guys to understand how we play man-to-man defense instead of throwing two different things at them and now they're confused. We'll work on it.”

Now, Padgett can take a breath, and hope his veteran players have gotten some jitters out of their systems. Not until you stop and think about it do you remember that Padgett, really just six weeks ago, had this team dumped into his lap, a Hall of Fame coach gone, no assistant coaches, a program in chaos. It’s no small thing that he, his staff and his players are hoping to accomplish, against that backdrop.

"For all of us, it's almost like, not the weight of the world off our shoulders, but just the relief,” Padgett said. “For six weeks to today, we were practicing getting ready for this game and now that it is finally here, I think we were anxious. Some of us had a little bit of nerves, but now we can just get in the routine of games moving forward."

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