By Noah Allison–
In a weekend that saw the nation’s top ranked North Carolina Tar Heels lose to unranked Northern Iowa, Louisville managed to avoid what looked to be a November upset of their own.
Hosting the North Florida Ospreys, U of L found themselves in an early 16 to nine deficit.
The Ospreys came into the match 3-0 and averaging 99 points per game. On the season, North Florida shot 48 percent from behind the three-point line. In the first half against Louisville they managed to turn it up a notch making nine three pointers and shooting at 56 percent from behind the arc.
“They are a really, really good basketball team. They are as good a shooting team as I’ve seen in 10, 12, 15 years because every shot they take looks like it’s going in,” Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino said.
Throughout the half, Louisville could not shake the Osprey’s high-powered offense and unflappable confidence. Leading 30-21 with six minutes left in the half, Louisville allowed ten straight points that put the Ospreys right back in the mix of things.
North Florida’s senior forward Beau Beech sank his third three-pointer of the half as the buzzer sounded, narrowing Louisville’s lead to 43-41 heading into the locker room.
In the early Saturday funk it seemed like the worst may be happening and whispers of ‘a wake up call’ and ‘upset’ were wallowing around the KFC Yum! Center.
Lost in the fear of an upset were Louisville’s advantages. At the half the Cardinals were outrebounding the Ospreys 31 to 13 and Louisville’s size and depth would prove to be the difference.
Led by senior forward Damian Lee’s 24 points and seven rebounds, the Cards managed to turn up the intensity in the second half and eventually won handedly, 89-61.
The Cards finished with 53 rebounds to North Florida’s 22, Louisville also added 12 steals to UNF’s five and 15 assists to UNF’s 11. Most noticeably, Louisville only allowed two three pointers in the second half.
“Awesome, awesome display of basketball,” Pitino said. “As good a half as I’ve seen in this building since I’ve been here. At both ends of the floor. I’m real proud of our guys. We beat a very, very good basketball team.”
The talk of the day was not Louisville’s avoidance of the upset, but the emergence of freshman power forward and Louisville native Ray Spalding.
Entering the game in the 13th minute of the first half, Spalding’s play would not allow Pitino to sub him out.
In his first two minutes of play, Spalding had two offensive rebounds, two field goals and a steal. He would go on to play 31 minutes and finished with 18 points going 8-10 from the field. He added a game high 12 rebounds for the double-double, hit both his free throws, had two blocked shots and was second on the team with four steals.
“We knew we were going to have to play Ray a lot tonight because Beau Beech is a great basketball player and he does play the power forward position at 6-foot-8, but he plays like a small forward wing player at times and our forwards of Mangok (Mathiang), Jaylen (Johnson) and Anas (Mahmoud) cannot guard him on the perimeter or guard the switches and we knew Ray could.
“Now, with that being said, we knew Ray would play, but we didn’t expect 18 points, 12 rebounds, four steals and two blocks. That was an incredible coming out party for him,” Pitino continued.
“Every day in practice, Ray is the high man on deflections. You know, you would like to get anywhere from five to seven or eight deflections from an individual player – that’s a very active player. He had 12 today. Besides that stat line, he had 12 deflections today. From the way he gets in the passing lanes, his wingspan and his quickness — it’s truly incredible and I’m really proud of him.”
Beyond Spalding and Lee, key contributors were senior guard Trey Lewis who finished with 15 points and four rebounds. Sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku finished with six points, nine rebounds, five assists and a game high five steals. Sophomore guard Quentin Snider added nine points and had a game high six assists while junior center Mangok Mathiang added eight points, five rebounds and a game high three blocks.
“Like I said, I think we had a devastating performance. I haven’t seen too many halves like that as a coach here – against a real good basketball team. To hold them to 28 percent, 20 points (in the second half), to play that type of defense and to turn around and play great on offense. They never lost focus on offense to hot-dog it, throw a lob, get bounce passes and backdoor layups and move the basketball. Never lose focus at all with the lead. To me that is just so impressive,” Pitino said.