By Matt Bradshaw —
With four straight wins and a five-way tie for ACC first place, Louisville men’s basketball has thoroughly exceeded expectations with one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
No. 23 U of L (14-5, 5-1) defeated No. 21 NC State (15-4, 3-3) in an entertaining back-and-forth matchup at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cardinals won 84-77 as the Wolfpack kept it close and home fans slightly nervous throughout.
“We beat a really really good team,” head coach Chris Mack said. “They played hard from the very beginning of the game until the end. When you can beat a team like that, you stepped up to the challenge.”
The visitors outrebounded the home team 38-26, though early edges in three-point shooting and points in the paint lessened as U of L found footing.
Their opponent’s blunders led to 37 points off turnovers and the Cards’ improved offensive prowess continued to show, proving a big reason for the dub. Mack’s system of ball movement and patience works extremely well with his team.
Graduate guard Christen Cunningham led the offense with usual facilitative guidance, scoring 17 points with four rebounds and four assists. Jordan Nwora followed with 13 points and six rebounds, though the sophomore has had better shooting performances (3-for-12 from the field).
“He didn’t let an off-night on offense affect his intensity,” Mack said about Nwora, also commenting that he stayed strong on the defensive end.
“We’re together,” graduate guard Khwan Fore said. “We always got each other’s back. He’s bound to have a game like this. We’re always here to pick him up with the amount of scorers we have on this team.”
Louisville’s big men posted a productive night, shooting a combined 4-for-6 beyond the arc. Sophomore Malik Williams scored 14 points with four rebounds and three blocks. Junior Steven Enoch scored 10 points with four rebounds.
Junior Dwayne Sutton had a tough night, notching three fouls early on and playing decreased minutes. Fore had a great night all-around with nine points, four assists, three rebounds, a steal and the highest plus/minus total of the team (+16).
Another crucial statistic: free throws. Louisville shot 24-for-29 from the line, particular helping to seal the deal at the end of the game.
Louisville started strong in the top-25 matchup, shooting out to a 20-10 lead. Dunks from Nwora and Sutton, along with three-pointers from Williams and Enoch, energized the crowd.
With a 17-4 run, NC State upped the ante and put themselves right back in the game. U of L’s defense worked hard, but the Wolfpack nailed seven straight shots for a 27-24 lead.
The Cardinals offset the deficit with a run of their own. Charged by a jumper from junior V. J. King and three-pointer from junior Ryan McMahon, they work back to the lead and held it 42-41 at halftime.
U of L gained a five-point edge in the first few minutes of the second half, then led 61-51 before long. They shot and rebounded better than NC State, as the Wolfpack could not replicate their first half accuracy under strong Cardinals defense.
That quickly changed when the visitors made a string of shots and defensive stops to tie the game once again at 63-63. By the end of the game, there were 18 ties and four lead changes.
The scoreboard stayed extremely close as time winded down. Huge three-pointers from Sutton and Enoch, with a jumper from Fore, gave Louisville a 75-69 lead under a roaring crowd.
“Card Nation gets us going every time,” Williams said post-game. Cunningham responded with a quip: “Malik and the crowd…they have a special bond.”
Consistent offense and free throw completion, plus more NC State turnovers, sealed the deal for the Cards. They won 84-77.
Before the game, U of L found itself No. 13 in the NET rankings. With the win over NC State (No. 27 in the NET), the Cardinals earned their fourth Quadrant 1 victory of the season (Michigan State, Seton Hall, North Carolina and NC State).
Louisville men’s basketball hosts Pitt on Saturday, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. The Panthers defeated the Cards 89-86 earlier this month at Pittsburgh.
You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.
Photos by Taris Smith & Adrianna Lynch / The Louisville Cardinal