Cards hang tight, fall short, bring home a Final Four

From Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

This Louisville team could have played in a national title game tonight, had they not drawn Anthony Davis in the Final Four.

I’ve been hesitant to read much coverage of this game, because I already know what some will say. “The outcome was never much in doubt.” “The game was never as close as the final score indicates.” Many writers explored the rivalry exhaustively during the proceeding week, aware of the millions of clicks any bullshit headline containing “Louisville” and “Kentucky” would effortlessly generate. But I question how many of those media commentators––especially the younger ones––perceive any measure of parity in the rivalry; and whether these clichéd refrains were scripted well in advance of Saturday’s tip-off.

To dismiss Louisville’s effort yesterday is a disservice to a team that acquitted itself well with a scrappy, defiant performance, which fell short in the face of missed dunks and overwhelming talent. The Cards were irreverent underdogs, bent on postponing UK’s media coronation and never losing sight of the pugnacious style that had gotten them to an unlikely Final Four.

Moreover they hung with UK every step of the way––weathering the video game dunks, the intimidating blocks, the disappointing squandered opportunities––and storming back repeatedly to close the gap and quell the premature celebrations of Greg Gumbel and Big Blue Nation. A horrible defensive start––in which Gorgui Dieng seemed baffled by Davis and on-ball defenders failed to keep Teague out of the lane––condemned the Cardinals to forty minutes of playing catch-up. But they regained their composure at a juncture where, I believe, almost every other team in the country would have folded.

As ugly as the shooting and transition defense became at times, Louisville played well. Unfortunately, it had to play almost flawlessly (the way it played against Marquette in New York City, for example) in order to win against a such a transcendent collection of motivated talent. When they contained Lamb and Jones and kept Kidd-Gilchrist in foul trouble, Anthony Davis picked up the slack. UK simply had too many capable one-on-one scorers to contain, and Davis went at his post defender unrelentingly. His scoring efficiency (7-8 shots) keyed UK’s gaudy 57% shooting percentage. Ironically, UK’s senior native son ultimately stepped in to lift his team of one-and-done imports beyond UofL’s reach. Darius Miller’s poise compounded Davis’ individual performance and finally broke the game open in the closing minutes.

There are several failures you could point to in explaining this loss. For example, no Louisville player scored more than 11 points in a game where the inefficient offense probably needed a breakout game from one of its scorers. Pitino’s plan to exploit Dieng’s mismatch with a weaker defender produced some success, but the big man still ended up shooting a paltry 3-10. Russ Smith’s volume shooting failed to produce more than 9 points. And Louisville’s ever-steady transition defense was at times overwhelmed by UK’s athleticism, which granted them a larger margin of error on poor passes and would-be turnovers.

None of that diminishes this accomplishment. This Louisville Cardinals team––the same one that lost four of six games to end the season––won thirty games and went to a Final Four. This team was, for me, the most likable Louisville squad I’ve followed in my lifetime. Their workmanlike attitude and dramatic resurrection was a privilege to watch.

It’s easy to turn our attention to next year as soon as the last buzzer sounds, but that would have also been a disservice to this team. This season was an unforgettable run worthy of reflection and appreciation. I’m already looking forward to the twenty-five year reunion to which Pitino alluded. My only hope is that some of those alums have National Championship rings to show off by then.

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