By Aj Pfeiffer
It seems magic has been added to the menu at the KFC Yum! Center, as Pitino’s Cardinals served up another come from behind win Wednesday night against West Virginia University, 55-54. Down 11 at halftime, the Cards rallied late in the second to set up a phenomenal Peyton Siva up and under lay up with five seconds remaining, taking a one point lead on the Mountaineers and clinching their fifth Big East victory.
” I didn’t see it go in. George set a screen and as I drove it seemed to open up for me, but they’re such a good defensive team, they collapsed on me and I just took it up and threw up a trick shot then prayed to god it went in.” Siva went on to say, “I just prayed to god it would go in, and the rest is history.”
The game was truly a tale of two halves. The first of which belonged solely to West Virginia’s Joe Mazzulla, who scored 18 points in the first. The Cardinal offense sagged after losing the lead at the 10:16 mark, going 4 for 14 from the field and only accruing ten points in the last eleven minutes of the first. To make matters worse freshman center Gorgui Dieng hit the floor hard while battling for a rebound and suffered a concussion, adding a fourth Cardinal to the concussion list this season.
The second half was a completely different ball game. The defensive intensity put out by Pitino’s men was stalwart, Matched only by the frenetic pace displayed on offense. The drama of the second half unfolded almost immediately after the home team regained the lead. A Dalton Pepper three pointer closed the gap for West Virginia to one with 1:30 remaining in the game, after an errant Knowles jumper and rough defensive stand a questionable possession call, gave the Mountaineers the ball under their own basket with just over 40 seconds left. WVU’s Kevin Jones found a mismatch against Siva and scored a five footer to reclaim the lead at 54-53. On the subsequent offensive possession for the Cardinals, Terrence Jennings missed a tough alley-oop off a pick and role from Siva. Leaving no option but to foul, Chris Smith grabbed Mountaineer guard Darryl Bryant sending him to the free throw line. After a Pitino time out, Bryant faced two crucial attempts at the stripe, making both would most likely assure overtime at best for the Cardinals who would need a three to tie. Bryant missed both. Junior guard Kyle Kuric pulled down the rebound and was fouled, setting up what would become a magical offensive trip for the team.
Team captain Preston Knowles joined in on praising his teammates, but in true veteran form is taking a lesson from every game, win or loss.
“This team never wants to let each other down and we always try to fought until the last second. It shows a lot of character, but we have to realize what it took for us to get back in it and then play like that every game.” Knowles finished with 10 points and 5 assists.
During a 14-2 run which gave the Cards their first lead of the second half, the efforts of almost the entire roster were on display. Russ Smith created open shots for Knowles and Smith while running the point, Jennings pulled down rebound after rebound, and Van Treese showed his usual hustle on both sides of the floor to create a unified comeback by the young Cardinal squad.
“In the second half we forgot about offense.” coach Pitino said, saying earlier that his team was thinking too much about offense early in the contest. “They need to understand what defense is all about. If you forget about offense and you just screen and cut and score, what will happen is you will score. If you think about your shot not going in than you’re going to play bad defense and you’re going to be in a bad mood to play defense.”
Heeding their coaches words, the largest turn around from the first half, and arguably more impressive than even the winning basket was the defensive roadblock set up against Joe Mazzulla, who was held scoreless in the final 20 minutes of play. A very proud Coach Pitino even came up with a new name for his scrappy team.
“These kids are without question the Cardiac Kids, they have great heart, great character, it’s fun to coach them.”
As of Wednesday night after the victory the 19 ranked, 16-4 Cardinals are tied for second in the Big East. They face a tough upcoming schedule next facing No. 4 UCONN on the road.