By Dalton Ray–
Entering the men’s basketball game against Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament, each team had separate roles. U of L was the 25-win team that survived one of the toughest schedules in the nation to earn a two-seed. The Wolverines came in as one of the hottest teams in the country and rode a Big Ten tournament championship to a seven-seed.
With only three players with NCAA Tournament experience, the Cardinals walked into uncharted territory. Louisville secured their first tournament win since 2015 after a first-round scare from 15-seed Jacksonville State.
The match against the Gamecocks raised warning signs for U of L, but the Cardinals prevailed.
This Louisville team had a care-free feel. Their high-effort and happy-go-lucky approach allowed fans to become more attached than the average U of L team.
Despite the eight losses entering the tournament, no loss seemed to upset the Cardinals. Losing in the regular season wasn’t a big deal because there will be more.
No loss lit a fire under this team and put them in survival mode. They never felt the burn of having their dreams torn away.
Against the Wolverines, the Cardinals played the same way they did in their loss against Duke in the ACC tournament. The Cardinals held a lead most of the game and in the final 10 minutes, they fumbled the game away.
This time, there is no next game. No more Cardinal pep band. No more cheering fans spelling out Cards. No more post-game interviews. The basketball season is now in storage for seven months.
This is the type of loss that makes a championship team. When Louisville won the national championship in 2013, every returning player remembered the feeling of losing to rival Kentucky in the Final Four – the sting of being so close and letting it slip away.
The loss to Michigan in the second round can be that type of loss for the 2017-2018 team.
This year, expectations were pointing to at least another Elite Eight run. U of L had their youthful eyes set down the road while the hungry Wolverines focused on the now.
Coach Rick Pitino has harped all year that his team wasn’t good defensively. In the big dance, it showed.
Coming out a 93-point outing in round one, Michigan shot 63 percent in the second half and scored in crucial moments down the stretch.
“Going forward, we have to learn how important defense is,” Pitino said. “With the game on the line, we broke down defensively – not offensively.”
Tied at 55, Louisville allowed back-to-back threes. After a turnover, the Cardinals allowed a lay-up. In under 70 seconds, Louisville went from being tied to being down six.
After a missed three from Snider while down four, Louisville allowed a wide open lay-up with 1:18 remaining.
A steal off the press allowed for Donovan Mitchell to cut the lead to two with 56 seconds remaining.
On the other end, Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. drove to the basket to convert an uncontested lay-up, ending U of L’s hopes for a comeback.
The Cardinals expected a magical tournament run, only to see it ripped from under them as the first two-seed to be bounced.
The season comes to an end, but it can lead to so much more next year if the team can channel their anger and learn from this mistake.
Photo by Nancy Hanner / The Louisville Cardinal