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Flickering lights

CRAWFORD | Louisville still can't figure out who it is; brief flash not enough to beat Notre Dame

Mike Pegues

Mike Pegues coaches the Louisville men's basketball team against Duke in his first game back as the program's interim head coach.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Did you ever see the movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation?" Clark Griswold has the house all decked out for Christmas, enough lights to run an airport at night, he flips the switch for his big reveal with the whole family watching, and nothing. He keeps flipping, nothing. Everybody goes back inside, but he keeps trying, then someone in the house flips a switch, and for a moment, alone, he sees all the lights, and is overwhelmed with happiness. Then the switch is flipped off, and it's back to nothing.

For about six minutes in the second half of Wednesday's 63-57 loss at Notre Dame, the lights came on for the Louisville basketball team.

Pegues saw his team plug into the game plan and the result was glorious, an 11-point deficit turned into a one-point lead. Players, excited by their success, emotionally embracing each other, ramping up their effort against a depleted Notre Dame roster.

And then, suddenly, the switch went back off. The emotion drained. The frustration returned. Pegues kicked started kicking the lawn decorations. And Louisville lost a sixth straight game to stretch their losing streak to the longest the program has suffered since 1991.

The frustrating thing, or one of the frustrating things, about this Louisville team is that it has the ability to play well, but it doesn't seem to have a grasp of what that looks like. Its parts don't add up to the kind of whole it should be. This was a team that had hoped to be having the kind of run that Notre Dame is having. The Irish took over first place in the ACC with last night's win. Louisville is just hoping to get another win this season.

It is a team that wants to throw three-point haymakers when it needs to be landing body blows in the post.

Anyone who has watched this group for any length of time long ago abandoned the notion that it would become a good perimeter shooting team. The much-hyped four 40%-or-better three-point shooters from last season have evaporated into the program's mythology. Those shots aren't going to fall.

The first half on Wednesday was proof enough. Louisville went 3-18 from beyond the arc. Sure it made 7 of 12 from 2-point range. But threes are, I guess, easier. They shot threes like a guy at a carnival, just sure he could get that over-inflated ball into that 12-foot hoop. At halftime, not only had they not won an oversized stuffed animal, they were down 35-23, and fortunate that Notre Dame had made only 3 of 12 from beyond the arc themselves.

Louisville interim coach Mike Pegues assured reporters after the game that Louisville's intention was not to come into South Bend and start jacking up threes. He noted that it went inside on the game's first two possessions. And in fact, the Cardinals did, and led 5-0 early. But it did not continue. And the statistics don't lie.

Malik Williams returned from a two-game suspension midway through the first half. He shot a pair of air balls from three-point range and came out after he was beat on a baseline drive and just waved at the defender as he went by. He did not return to the court.

If the intent was to pound the ball into the post from the outset, Louisville players did not receive the memo. They scored just 8 first-half points in the paint.

"Obviously we dug ourselves a hole in the first half," Pegues said. "It was really hard to climb out of, although we did go back up one late in the game. I was proud of the group that we played in the second half. I thought that there was so much fight and grit and toughness on the floor in the second half than we had in the first."

They started to operate more efficiently in the second, and managed four straight scores around the basket in the early going, but didn't get defensive stops to go with them. That changed midway through the half, when in a five-minute stretch they made 8 of 11 shots and got a few stops on the other end to turn a 7-point deficit into a one-point lead. The shot chart reads layup, dunk, jumper in the paint, layup, three-pointer, jumper in the paint, layup, dunk.

The Cardinals where chest bumping. They were feeling it. They forced Notre Dame to call a timeout, down one, with 6:14 to play.

Then they didn't make another shot until there were 26 seconds left in the game. And it was over.

The missed shots read like this: layup, three-pointer, three-pointer, perimeter jumper, three-pointer, three-pointer, three-pointer.

Game over.

"We've got to be able to be smarter and make better plays down the stretch than we did," Pegues said. "I thought that we took some rough shots down the stretch. They didn't necessarily fall in line with what we wanted to get as a group, weren't the best shots for us. We had some guys in the locker room take full responsibility for that. I take responsibility for a couple of sets down stretch that we didn't quite execute because Notre Dame showed us a different coverage. I've got to be better down the stretch.

"... We took a couple bad ones down the stretch. You know those guys know who they are, and they admitted that, and they didn't do it out of selfishness. They did it because they were trying to make a play and, as much as I appreciate them being aggressive and trying to make a play, at the end of the day we've got to make the best play for Louisville basketball and some of those shots certainly were not."

Sometimes, Pegues said, guys just wanted to make a play too much. They thought they could make the shot. They were open. But as the old saying goes, there was a reason they were open.

The lights dimmed on this Louisville team because, in the end, it doesn't know who it is, or who it needs to be. It needs to be Withers working in the post. Or, when not in the post, pulling shot blockers away so someone like Dre Davis or Sameuell Williamson (who didn't play Wednesday, coach's decision) can go to work at short range.

It needs to bang away at the body of opposing teams. That will open inside-out opportunities. But the damage has to be done underneath. That's the way it is. Pegues recognizes this, particularly where Davis and Withers are concerned.

Withers had his best game of the season. He finished with 20 points and 5 rebounds.

"I want him around the basket more." Pegues said of Withers. "I want him playing around the basket. I want him posted. I want him using his athleticism and his size. He's unique. He can post big guys, smaller guys. He can make a three when he's wide open. He had a big one tonight. But I want the focus of his game to be about playing in the lane and not floating around on the perimeter. And that's my charge to him. And I need him to meet me in the middle on that and continue to compete around the basket and be tough in that lane. We're going to be all right if he does that. If he's not, me and him are going to have problems. I'm happy for him because he played hard tonight and he played well. But it centers around him getting in the lane and playing around the basket. He's got to play inside-out and if he does that, he's going to continue to have success."

From the looks of it, some other guys and Pegues are not all right. Curry largely sat on the bench. He started but played only four minutes. Williamson didn't play at all. Matt Cross got only 8 minutes. JJ Traynor saw his first action of the calendar year and scored 5 points in 8 minutes.

The Cardinals now have a week off until facing Miami at home on Feb. 16.

Pegues said he'll give the team two days off, then bring the players back with the intent of figuring out who wants to play hard to earn playing time.

"We're going to get after each other and I'm going to find out who I can ride," Pegues said.

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