photo from sbnation
My typical anxiety that precedes a Louisville game was tinged with uncharacteristic dread last night. It was potentially their last opportunity to notch a win against a current top-25 team before Selection Sunday, and the stage was set for a letdown: Marquette’s best team in years was fully rested and looking to avenge last year’s blowout loss to the Cardinals in the Big East quarterfinals. Louisville’s historic offensive struggles were on full display in an ugly win against Seton Hall on Wednesday night, and it had been almost a month since the team had last secured a win in a highly emotional environment, against West Virginia. Defense notwithstanding, it was hard for me to imagine U of L scoring enough points to beat such a skilled, explosive Marquette team.
Then the whistle blew, and Louisville scored 50 points in one half for the first time this season.
Although the Cards never trailed, the game’s almost outcome never felt certain. Gorgui Dieng accumulating a questionable over-the-back and a technical in the span of several seconds was without doubt the “oh shit” moment of the game. Twelve minutes into the game at that point, the eerie similarities between the opening segments of this game and the trip to Milwaukee culminated in nightmarish fashion: Dieng had picked up his second foul 11 minutes into this season’s first meeting with Marquette. In Dieng’s absence, Marquette seemed poised to make a furious comeback and seize upon the vacuum he’d left in the middle of the zone. They narrowed the Louisville lead to three points over the next four minutes. The segment witnessed heavy drinking in my living room and surely many others.
Then a remarkable thing happened. The tandem of Jared Swopshire and Chane Behanan held their own defensively for the first time in recent memory. Swop in particular battled for rebounds on both ends of the court, got to the line and hit free throws under pressure. They held serve as the Cards stretched the lead to 10 points by halftime. The rotation of Swop, Behanan and a well-rested Dieng remained hugely effective in the second half, corralling a season-high 50 rebounds (26 offensive).
There are so many positive conclusions and narratives to draw from this game that it’s hard to distribute as much praise as each player deserved. Siva is putting it all together at just the right moment, and becoming one of the stars of the Big East Tournament in the process. While his outside shooting remains streaky, Kyle Kuric is making the necessary adjustments to score and playing with unprecedented assertiveness on both ends of the floor. Russ Smith managed 12 points and 5 huge steals in only 20 minutes.
In my opinion the most encouraging subplot of this win––which will fall through the cracks of superficial major media coverage––is the emergence of Jared Swopshire. The inconsistent senior, who had seemed to regress in almost every aspect since his promising return in the fall, followed up his quietly effective second round performance with one of the best games of his Louisville career against Marquette. Very suddenly thrust into a crucial role when Gorgui Dieng racked up three first-half fouls, Swop responded by scoring 8 points, hitting 80% of his free throws, and grabbing 12 gutsy rebounds. Perhaps most importantly, he helped frustrate Big East player of the year and model of good sportsmanship Jae Crowder.
In their two Big East Tournament outings, Louisville has outscored their opponents by 15 points with Jared Swopshire on the floor. All season Gorgui Dieng has been arguably the team’s most indispensable player because of their lack of depth at center. Last night was only their seventh win in the thirteen games where Dieng entered halftime with two or more fouls (more on this later). Suddenly, it appears as though Pitino has found a serviceable backup center, the lack of which has been Louisville’s most glaring liability all year.
Louisville continues its tour of redemption in the semifinals tonight against the Notre Dame team that nipped them in double overtime at the Yum in January. In that game Dieng picked up his second foul seven minutes into the game, while Swop was scoreless and didn’t collect a single rebound. Ideally Dieng stays out of foul trouble in the first half tonight. But if he doesn’t let’s hope Swop can continue to step up to the task, and help carry the Cards to their third Big East Tournament finals appearance in four years.