By Sam Draut–
A game reminiscent of old Big East days usually doesn’t run synonymous with the word “beautiful,” but it was the exact word coach Rick Pitino used to describe Louisville’s 59-41 win over 20th-ranked Pitt, the Cardinals first win over a ranked team this season.
While the Cardinals offense has been capable, and at times, lethal this season, Pitino had yet to get the defensive performance he so desperately craved until Thursday.
“I feel like my long lost best friend came back,” Pitino said. “We been waiting some time for us to play defense like that it was exciting to play that way. Because that’s the way it’s been for four years.”
One of the hottest shooting teams in the country, Pitt (14-2 overall, 3-1 in the ACC) averaged 86.4 points and shot 50.7-percent from the field over their previously held 10-game winning streak.
But, Louisville was able to slow down the Panther scoring attack with execution and intensity.
“We kept switching from zone to man, and then man to zone,” Pitino said.
Pitt was held to a season low 41 points and shot just 14-of-49 from the field. Damion Lee had four of Louisville’s 10 steals as the Cardinals forced 19 turnovers and scored 21 points off the turnovers.
“We came in thinking they were an NBA team,” Donovan Mitchell said. “That is the type of mentality you have to have coming into every game.”
The defensive revival came days after Louisville’s 66-62 loss to Clemson.
Pitino said he didn’t yell at his team after the loss, but provided a stern message to what they could expect in March.
“I just said ‘look guys if your identity is to outshoot people then you may make the tournament but you’re going to have an early exit,’ I said ‘now you can shoot and you’re a good offensive basketball team but unless you learn to play Louisville-type defense were never going to be a great basketball team,'” Pitino said. “They took it to heart and worked really hard at it this week, zone-man switching up, blocking out.”
Before the game, Pitt was leading country in free-throw shooting and second nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency.
Louisville held Pitt to season lows in almost every offensive category and the Panthers seemed uncomfortable on offense all game.
“We did a very good job of bothering them where they went, they isolate a lot, and we really forced guys to their weak hand and then rotated and when they went to their weak hand we rotated properly and caused some problems,” Pitino said.
In years past, Louisville has been driven by a strong defense, and players know how important it is to continue the success in March.
“For us to want to get back to that level, we had to step up our defense,” Lee said.
If there was a time Louisville needed to improve upon its defensive capabilities, it was now. The Cardinals are less than two weeks away from beginning a brutal stretch in the ACC that includes two games against both Duke and Virginia, road contests with Miami, Notre Dame and Pitt and home games against North Carolina and Syracuse.