LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This might have been, all things considered, the biggest win in Chris Mack’s Louisville tenure to date.
Given where both teams were being placed in proximity to the NCAA Tournament “bubble,” this could easily have wound up an either-or situation come Selection Sunday. Duke had been playing much better, and came into Saturday’s game at Cameron Indoor on a three-game winning streak.
Louisville was one win removed from a humiliating loss in its last visit to North Carolina. Duke had all the inspiration. And all the momentum. And, in Saturday’s game, a great many of the breaks. Louisville lost big man Malik Williams to an aggravation of his long-running foot injury in the second half. Then it lost David Johnson to foul trouble. Then it lost big man Jae’Lyn Withers to fouls.
But it did not lose Carlik Jones. The graduate transfer from Radford took the game over late in regulation, then again in an overtime session, scoring 25 points to lead Louisville to a gotta-have-it 80-73 OT victory over Duke.
After a 99-54 beatdown in Chapel Hill just one week prior, the Cardinals showed some character in shaking off that loss to win back-to-back games and deal themselves back onto the lead lap of the ACC tournament’s double-bye chase. They also collected their first Quad 1 win of the season, in NCAA NET ranking parlance, eliminating one possible selection argument against them.
What looked a slumping program after a 19-day COVID layoff and a drubbing at UNC has now turned into back-to-back wins – and the beginnings of maturity.
“We had two of the longest COVID pauses, a lot of teams have had one, some haven’t had any,” Mack said. “We have a young crew, not practicing a log. And we got our brains beat out at North Carolina. I love our response. Everybody leaves us for dead. People say they aren’t that good. Maybe we aren’t. But we’re battling. Those guys listen to themselves, they allow themselves to be coached, and I was really proud of their effort today.”
Louisville grabbed an early 10-point lead and looked like it might cruise past Duke in the first half. But the Blue Devils were much more physical in the second, and after a couple of runs, finally put a head in front late.
But Jones wasn’t letting them get anything resembling control. He answered time and again, driving into the lane and finishing or pulling up to make jumpers. Duke’s Matthew Hurt was a monster, scoring 37 points. But it was Jones who got the job done at closing time. He missed a free throw that would’ve been the go-ahead point at the end of regulation, then missed a pull-up jumper as time expired after a big offensive rebound by Withers.
But he still came back to lead Louisville in overtime, slashing for the period’s first basket and sealing the win with free throws at the end. In between, Quinn Slazinski hit a three-pointer and a pair of big free-throws to give Louisville some cushion in OT.
Williamson, who finished with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, likened Jones to a closer.
“He’s like Mariano Rivera,” Williamson said.
Replied Jones: “I might have to go do my homework and look him up.”
“Matthew Hurt, as I told our kids, is special,” Mack said. “We put everybody on our team on him. He just has such a high release. We tried to deny him the ball, then he takes guys into the post. If you don’t switch his ball screens they’re just going to drag it out and throw it back to him and you won’t be there on the catch. If you switch it on a ball screen, they’re going to put the smallest guy out there, either Carlik or David. He’s just a really difficult matchup, one of the best players in the country. But we’ve got one of the best players in the country, too, and he made some plays down the stretch.
“For our team to respond the way they did in overtime – Carlik misses the free throw, we get the rebound and he misses – we came back to the bench feeling like we really controlled almost the entire game, to now having to go overtime. We responded here a year ago with a veteran team. Today we had some young guys making some plays. Quinn walked out on the floor at overtime and said, ‘Coach, I got you.’ I don’t know what that means, but he knocked down that three and made some big free throws. Carlik made some incredible plays. Sam really is playing well. So I’m excited, and we’ll turn the page and play a really good Virginia Tech team on Wednesday.”
Losing Williams when his foot was stepped on in the second half hurt the Cardinals. His absence would be a concern for Louisville going forward. Mack said the team’s defense “wasn’t as nasty” without him.
Mack said he’s not sure what Williams’ outlook is, but he’s hopeful.
“We just wanted to be cautious with him, and figure out what it is,” Mack said. “We’ll do that tomorrow, and hopefully he’s good to go and we’ll get him back out there.”
Louisville returns to action Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Virginia Tech.
Copyright 2021 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.