By Noah Allison–
It seems like so long ago that Louisville basketball fans got to see this year’s team for the first time in the Red v. White scrimmage. Sophomore Chane Behanan was the star for grabbing 20 rebounds and scoring over 20 points. Earlier in the day, football head coach Strong and the football team went up to Pitt and beat them 45-35. Sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater showed off the Cardinals’ quick striking ability by throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Devante Parker on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, the victory marked the halfway point of the regular season and brought the team to a perfect 6-0 record.
The Cardinals faced Pikeville and Bellarmine in a scrimmage, two teams that were so small it proved tough for our larger players to keep up and play their big man, athletic style of play, they won easily regardless but the team was definitely trying to find their identity. For a period at the beginning of the season Gorgui Dieng was the leader in assists on the team, Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock were both coming off injuries, Chane Behanan and Kevin Ware had been in a bit of trouble being suspended for the last two Red v. White scrimmages and not allowed to talk to the press. Russ Smith was no longer the sparkplug off the bench and he and team leader Peyton Siva were beginning to form something special in the Louisville starting backcourt. The No. 2 team in the country had the talent and the know-how, but they hadn’t had a chance to prove themselves.
While the students and staff were on Thanksgiving break the team got to take a trip down to the Bahamas to compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. After a grind of a victory against Northern Iowa the Cards got their first shot at a real contender, No. 15 Missouri. The Cards arrived and showed off their athletic ability and speed in play. The win earned Rick Pitino and the Cards a chance to compete against the standard in college basketball and perennial contender Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils. It would be the first time the two stoic figures would meet since the 1992 Duke v. Kentucky tournament game when Christian Laettner buried “The Shot” to defeat Pitino’s Wildcats. To the surprise and dismay of Card Nation, they woke up the morning of the game to learn that Gorgui Dieng had broken his wrist the night before in the Missouri game. Back-ups Stephan Van Treese and Zach Price stepped up big as did the rest of the team, but their efforts weren’t enough as they suffered their first loss of the season 76-71. It was a spirited loss to say the least, as Cardinal fans hope they get to see how things could be different with Gorgui Dieng in the line-up.
The Cards came off that trip fired up and in the next game nearly shut out Miami of Ohio in the first half ahead by 80-39, but the next game didn’t go as well. Going down early against Illinois State, the Cards had to rally in the second half to edge out a 69-66 nail biting victory. The close game aroused the Cards and they showed out in their next games winning by a combined score of 179- 85. That was followed with one of the toughest games and most impressive victories the Cardinals have had all year by conjuring up a comeback at Memphis, starting the game16 points down. Memphis was alley-ooping and slam-dunking to an extent that would have had most teams ready to leave at halftime. The Cards remained resilient and stuck with it on defense turning Memphis over 24 times on route to signature out of conference win for the Cards.
After a big comeback victory at Memphis, Rick Pitino had to prepare his team and prepare himself to face for the first time his son, Richard Pitino and his Florida International team. As much as it pained him having to beat his son Rick Pitino had to be happy to see Peyton Siva set his career game high with five three pointers on the way to the Cards going 10-1.
A month had gone by at this point and Gorgui Dieng was still recovering from his broken wrist, but an opponent came up – one more loathed, detested, and hated than any other one thing to native Louisvillians: the defending National Champion Kentucky Wildcats.
Gorgui couldn’t miss out on this. With Dieng’s return to the line-up and a high-flying Chane Behanan who led the team with 20 points, the Cardinals were able to reap a little bit of revenge for last year’s final four loss to UK. The 80-77 victory was the first for the Cards in the series since 2009. The win was the kind of boost the team needed to head into Big East conference play.
The season was going as well as anyone could have hoped for. The Cards started off 4-0 in conference play with every victory coming in double-digit fashion. The Cards were rolling, had one of the top defenses in the country and were bumped up to the AP No. 1 for the first time during the regular season in school history and were set for a top five showdown with Big East rival Syracuse in the KFC Yum! Center. Who is to say how long the Cards could have stayed No. 1 (had it not been for a poor decision by a guy who normally makes good ones?).
Up by one point with less than a minute left Peyton Siva made an unadvisable pass after driving to the basket that was picked off by Syracuse and gave them the game leading score; the Cardinals didn’t recover and their time as the No. 1 had ended.
The pain didn’t end there; the Cardinals had a victory in hand at Villanova in the next game when poor free throw shooting and a bit of bad luck led to the Cardinals second straight loss of the season. Two games in a row the Cardinals could have won and should have won were starting to weigh down on the hearts of Card Nation. The following Saturday at Georgetown the Cardinals found themselves in a quintessential Big East grind, the game came down to Peyton Siva taking the three for the win, and missing the three for the win. The Cards lost their third consecutive game, and people were looking up to see if the sky was falling.
The home game against Pittsburgh couldn’t come soon enough, but the Cardinals were playing without key backup guard Kevin Ware who was suspended for the game. The Cards had to get a lot of minutes of Tim Henderson who hardly sees the floor, and even a little bit out of Michael Baffour, also known as “Dark Slime.” It was a tough game as expected, but the Cards ended their losing woes and pulled out the 64-61 victory.
On Superbowl Sunday, the crowd dressed in white for the Whiteout against Big East leaders, Marquette. After jumping out and gaining the 9-1 lead, Marquette got exposed to Louisville’s wrath as they played one of their most sound games of the season coming back and beating Marquette 70-51. That was followed with another good road victory winning 68-48 at Rutgers, where Russ Smith got to show off his hops with one of the best Cardinal dunks of the year witnessed by his father in the crowd.
Then, there was Notre Dame. The Notre Dame game for the players and fans was one of the toughest, most physically and emotionally draining games ever; simple as that. The Cardinals haven’t won in South Bend since Denny Crum was the coach, and that should have ended this year. But a Notre Dame player who shall not be named scored 12 points in the last 42 seconds to pry open the jaws of victory that Louisville had clenched on the game for the final minutes of the second half.
It shouldn’t have ever even gone into its first over time, but it did. It shouldn’t have gone into its second overtime but it did. The game should not have gone into its third, fourth, or fifth overtime, but for some reason, it did. The Cardinals lost the longest regular season game in Big East history 104-101, and it hurt.
Determined to finish the season off right, the team has made a conscious act to win out the rest of the regular season. Since the Notre Dame loss the Cardinals are 3-0, beating the likes of St. John’s, University of Southern Florida and Seton Hall. It’s been an up and down regular season with glory and grief accompanying every game, but this is just the regular season. The Cardinals are getting ready for the real season: postseason. For all the drama, injuries and rising stars that have emerged from this season, it has all come in preparation for the tournament.
The Cardinals have four regular season games left, including rematches with Syracuse and Notre Dame. It is not revenge that the Cardinals seek; it is reassurance. Coach Pitino and his team know of their potential, but they want realize that potential. This is a team that has grown with every game, and is continuing to grow with every game. The season is culminating and the players are reaching their peaks. It is time to bring out that Card magic that they found last year come tournament time and combine it with the talent that they’ve had all year long. This team is built for the postseason, and the postseason is quickly approaching.