LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The two hottest offenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference didn’t di…
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I don’t really care about the stat sheet or analytics from the University of Louisville’s 84-77 win over No. 21 N.C. State on Thursday.
Christen Cunningham was his usual steady self for the Cardinals, part main-man, part metronome. He navigated N.C. State’s pressure, drove when the team needed a driver, and produced in big moments as he has all season, scoring a team-best 17 points.
More games than not, he’d get the WDRB Sports Page Player of the Game and the complementary gift certificate for $0.00 that comes with it, if we gave one out. He’d probably have gotten it on Thursday night.
But he had some competition for that honor. Khwan Fore had an outstanding game. And before you go rifling through the stat sheet to see what he did that was so great, you’re probably not going to find it there. He had nine points, four assists, three rebounds and a pair of steals. Others scored more and rebounded more and passed the ball just as well.
I’m just saying, from my seat behind the Louisville baseline in the second half, Fore did a ton of things to win that game. N.C. State’s full-court pressure can wear down opposing point guards. As the game wore on, Fore stepped up, handling the ball against pressure to keep Cunningham fresh.
He scored five straight points to put Louisville up 10 midway through the second half, and hit another big step-back jumper to put the Cards up six, giving them enough momentum with 4:18 left that N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts decided to call timeout.
There was something intangible about his play. But it was there. I asked Chris Mack about it, and he sounded as if he understood.
“Khwan is that guy,” he said. “He’s a jack of all trades ho does whatever the team asks. He makes big time plays. He guards the other team’s best player on the perimeter a lot of the time.”
Against man-to-man, full-court pressure, he got himself open and demanded the ball, clearing everyone out so he could bring it up from time to time.
“That was our way to get CC from really getting worn out from their full-court pressure,” Mack said. “And it didn’t effect what we were doing on the other end.”
This was a strange win for Louisville in that the Cardinals were bullied on the glass and gave up 12 of 27 shooting from three-point range. They also went the final 4:18 of the game without a field goal, and they only attempted two in that time – a pair of three-pointers. They also went 9 of 10 from the free-throw line in that span.
Their big equalizer was the turnover – they forced 23 from an N.C. State team playing without injured star point guard Markell Johnson – and converted those into 37 points.
Somebody asked Mack if he had a goal each game for points off turnovers. He laughed.
“Forty-two,” he said. “No, I don’t have a goal. How many did we have tonight? We missed it by five. There are enough statistics to worry about and that is not one that we worry about.”
That’s been the case all season for the Cardinals, opting for conservative containment over gambling for steals. But it’s not as if Mack is averse to turnovers.
“I don’t think it’s the pack line,” Mack said. “I never should have said we were a pack line team. It’s taken a life of its own. It’s man-to-man defense. I think our guys are playing aggressive on the ball. We’re doing a better job of chesting the ballhandler when he’s driving down the lane. We’re not perfect. It’s not like we have 6-7, elite, athletic defenders. . . . I do think individually we’ve stepped up and are guarding the ball better. Sometimes when teams are overly aggressive, they make more mistakes, quite honestly, than we force.”
And while the subject here is defense, let’s hand out a couple more kudos to some guys you might not expect to be drawing them for defense.
Jordan Nwora is averaging something like a hundred points a game over his last two. Or something. A lot of points. But he couldn’t buy one Thursday night, going 3-12 from the field, 0-for-7 from three-point range. But he played solid defense, and drew praise from Mack for not letting an off night impede his defensive efforts.
And then there’s Ryan McMahon, who took a big charge in the final minute with N.C. State bidding to tie the game, then was fouled on the inbounds and buried two free-throws with 46 seconds left to all but seal the deal.
“The charge at the end was awesome,” Mack said. “We’ve been working really hard on being there for our buddy. You can’t always keep the ball in front of you. They have good players on the other side and they give out scholarships. We’ve run a lot of charge drills in practice. It was great to see Ryan had the presence of mind and the ability and the toughness to step over and take a charge. In what really was a critical moment – a game-ending type play. We still had free throws to make . . . but he made a big-time play on the defensive end. He’s grown tremendously.”
On this team, he’s not the only one.
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