CRAWFORD | Louisville's weathered vets and young coach look to be coming of age
Over the past three games, Louisville players appear to have found a measure of confidence in each other -- and in their first-year coach.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WDRB) – There was a moment at the end of the first overtime in Notre Dame’s Joyce Center when first-year Louisville interim coach David Padgett looked at his veteran counterpart on the other sideline, Mike Brey, and smiled.
I’m told ESPN’s cameras picked up the glance, but nobody knew exactly what Padgett said to Brey from down the sideline. After the game, Padgett said he looked down at the Notre Dame coach and joked, “We going to play five?”
It was a reference to Louisville’s epic five-overtime loss in 2013. Everybody remembers that game. I overheard Louisville radio play-by-play voice Paul Rogers talking to an usher before the game, and that night came up.
“Louisville went 35-5 that year,” Rogers said, “But I always tell people that’s not right, because they lost five times on that one night right here.”
They seemed to find a way to lose that one. Two years ago, many of these same Louisville players were ahead of Notre Dame in this building until they were outscored 18-9 in the final 10 minutes, having just learned that the possibility of an NCAA Tournament had been taken from them. It was as if they lost a bit of a will to win.
On a frigid Tuesday night in South Bend, if nothing else, Louisville had a will to win. Mark it, Louisville 82, Notre Dame 78, in two overtimes. Record it that Padgett, in his first trip into the building as a head coach, managed what no Louisville coach had accomplished since 1994, when a Ballard freshman named DeJuan Wheat and an All-American big man named Clifford Rozier led Louisville to an overtime win.
This time, it was a Ballard senior named Quentin Snider and a blossoming big man named Ray Spalding. But it also was the cool hand on the sideline, the young coach who looked up at the opposing coach and smiled when the game was at its most heated.
Look at the stat sheet of this game. The numbers don’t really add up to a Louisville win. Notre Dame took 18 more shots – and basically all of them were three-pointers. The Irish took 18 more three-pointers than Louisville did, and made four more. They grabbed 26 offensive rebounds and in general dominated the glass, 48-34. Not only did they outscore Louisville 33-21 from the three-point line, the outscored the Cardinals 36-28 in the paint.
Yet Louisville led the game for 19 minutes and change to Notre Dame’s 16:26. And they made the bigger plays, which has been a Notre Dame staple in this series, especially in this building, for as long as anyone could remember. Brey said his team did everything it could.
“I give them a lot of credit, and I think David’s done a fabulous job,” Brey said. “I told him that before the game. He’s done a great job. The one thing, after all the turmoil, the one thing they have is really good players coming back, experienced guys who have won together. The old guys are kind of running that team, they’ve won three in a row right now, and they made all the plays tonight. I’m really impressed with how Spalding has improved. And then Snider is just one of those senior point guards who just makes all the right plays at the right time. . . . Snider and Spalding, they were men tonight.”
Padgett didn’t disagree with that assessment. But it leaves out his own leadership in all this. At every timeout, he sent them back onto the court urging his players to get just three stops in a row.
When Deng Adel, the team’s best defensive player a year ago, faltered on defense in the second half, he went to the bench. A corrective measure. And with his team being pummeled on the glass, he told his players before they took the court for the second overtime, if they outrebounded Notre Dame in that five-minute stretch, they’d win the game.
He told them the right things, but doing them was up to the players.
"The second half our experience really helped us,” Padgett said. “Our experienced guys made big plays. I thought (freshman) Jordan Nwora got us back in the game (when down 10) in the first half. He obviously didn’t score great, had six points, but was active on defense and did some good things. But in the second half and overtime, we really relied on our experienced guys to make big plays and they did. They executed when they needed to. We got a couple of crucial stops and a big rebound, and that’s why we were able to win.”
Louisville grabbed the game’s final three rebounds. Notre Dame missed its last four shots.
The biggest shot in the second overtime, a three-pointer with 2:54 left that put Louisville up six. That play was called by Padgett from the sideline. Snider went to the corner, his teammates swung the ball, he drilled the shot.
Snider finished with 22 points, seven of them in the two overtime periods. Spalding had 23 points, six in overtime. The two combined to score Louisville’s final nine points in the second overtime.
Yes, Notre Dame is an injured team. It is playing without ACC player of the year Bonzie Colson. Tuesday night, it lost another starter, D.J. Harvey, after only seven minutes. A third starter, Matt Farrell, was playing on a bad ankle. He still finished with 23 points but needed 8-of-25 shooting to do it.
But don’t underestimate Notre Dame. They were coming off a home-court loss to North Carolina that many feel they should’ve won. And they badly needed this game, and played like it. By every measure, Notre Dame needed this one worse than Louisville did.
Louisville won anyway, and that, as we like to say, is a significant development for Louisville. The Cardinals won without their best. They didn’t rebound well. Adel didn’t have his best night. There’s a lot of room for improvement. But they won anyway.
They are building confidence – not just in themselves, but in Padgett too, it has to be said.
I don’t think people often remember what all this team has been through. They had an NCAA Tournament taken from them. They had a head coach taken from them. What exactly is supposed to motivate them to play hard? It’s not always easy to find that spark. It’s a lot easier to play for yourself, to not trust the guy next to you to make the play, or not trust the guy on the sidelines.
But in three straight wins, two of them on the road, these Louisville players seem to be working through some of all that and figuring out they can and should trust each other – and the guy on the sidelines.
“Just getting over that initial hump with the Florida State win was big,” Padgett said. “It gave us the confidence that we could win on the road against a team like that, and we were able to build on it at home against Virginia Tech and obviously now tonight. Just taking it one game at a time, whether we’re up 10 or down 10, taking it one possession at a time. . . . The resiliency of my team showed itself once again.”
It’ll have more chances to show itself. After a home game against Boston College on Sunday, the Cards will be underdogs in two of their next three, including trips to Miami and Virginia.
But they’re also a team that can play even better than they have been playing. They haven’t reached capacity by a long shot, not in a close loss at Purdue – which is surging – not in a close win at Florida State, nor in this double-overtime win at Notre Dame.
In a week when the program expects to learn its final NCAA fate from some past transgressions, these guys who have suffered the fallout from all of the scandal the program has endured appear to have solidified themselves for the present, led by a couple of Louisville kids in Snider and Spalding, making an interesting February and March at least a possibility.
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