By Matt Gatewood
The University of Louisville Cardinals thwarted any efforts of an upset by Coppin State Wednesday night in Freedom Hall befpre a crowd of 18,184 by posting a powerful score of 75-49 in their fourth straight home contest.
Tenacious defense in the first half by the Cards forced 20-turnovers, including eight steals. At the half, the Louisville led 40-16.
“We were not flat,” said Head Coach Rick Pitino. Pitino was happy that the team came out strong after last week’s performance in the Jim Thorpe Classic tournament.
Still, the Cardinals struggled with free-throws, shooting only 28.6% from the line. The team hopes to improve this percentage. “Ellis will find his rhythm,” said Reece Gaines.
Yet, Pitino was pleased with the team’s 3-point shooting. “They are all good 3’s,” said Pitino. “If you have open threes, take them.”
The Cards got their biggest scare of the night at the beginning of the second half when sophomore forward Luke Whitehead took an awful fall. Coming to the basket off an alley-oop pass from Gaines, Whitehead flew high in the air and was undercut by a Coppin State’s Larry Tucker. Whitehead made the basket but was upended and landed on the side of his head, twisting his neck and body.
After the fall, Whitehead attempted to rise but then laid back on the floor. Thirty seconds later his nose began to bleed. Though he was eventually helped to his feet he was taken to the hospital for examination to determine whether he had damage to his kidneys or spine.
“That was the worst spill I have ever seen as a coach,” said Pitino. “It scared the hell out of me. We were distracted the whole second half just worrying about Luke. I’ve never seen a body contort like that.”
Whitehead’s teammates felt the blow as well. He was on their minds throughout the rest of the game. “I was happy when he raised up,” said freshman Larry O’Bannon, but he also admitted that the injury to Whitehead distracted them.
“It mentally slows you down,” said freshman guard Bryant Northern.
The statistics for the second half spoke volumes for what was on the players’ minds. There were only six turnovers forced by the Cards in the second half.
However, the team knew what they had to do. The team shot 6-19 from 3-point range (31.6%) and kept the field goal percentage up by shooting 14-31 from the field (45.2%).
“It was nasty when he went down,” said sophomore forward Ellis Myles. “It was crazy. We had to keep our focus in the second half.”
Whitehead has been playing exceptionally well, and the team knows that he will be a big loss if he is not available for this weekend’s contest against Ohio State. Whitehead was 5-5 in field goals before the injury.
“Everyone is going to have to step it up on the press,” said Northern.
“[Whitehead] is a high energy guy. He controls the game,” said Gaines. He knows that the game against Ohio State will be challenging without Whitehead on the court but said “Freedom Hall will have lots of fans supporting us.”
Whitehead returned to the locker room about an hour after the game and seemed to be in good spirits. Though he was able to walk on his own he expected to be very sore in the morning. He had not seen the replays of the fall and said that everyone told him not to watch it.
“I spoke to my dad and he said that I should thank God that I wasn’t seriously hurt,” said Whitehead. “Whenever I fall, I try to get up real quick and shake it off. But this time when I tried, I realized it was a little worse than I was first thinking.”
Whitehead did not become frightened until he heard the crowd’s reaction. “Then I heard people start saying, ‘Oh my God,’ and I figured I better just wait for the trainers to come and see. When I started hearing the ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs,’ I started getting worried about whether I could feel my feet and things like that. I knew it wasn’t a normal fall.”
Luckily, Whitehead was diagnosed with only a sprained back.
When told that the fall would probably make the highlights of ESPN’s SportCenter Whitehead chuckled. “I didn’t want to make it that way.”
The Cardinals hope to put everything all together for the tough Saturday afternoon match-up. The game is at 2:00 p.m. on the 15th in Freedom Hall.
Additional information for story was provided by Charlie Leffler.