By Matt Bradshaw —
Some losses energize a team to action. Some damage the psyche. Duke’s recent 23-point comeback win over Louisville men’s basketball seems closer to the latter, as the Cardinals were cold and sluggish for an almost-loss against Clemson.
In the end, No. 16 Louisville (18-8, 9-4) topped a crucial conference game against the visiting Tigers (15-10, 5-7). The Cards failed to score 20 points in the first half, trailed much for the contest and nearly gave it away before a 56-55 win.
“We have to figure out ways to close games better,” head coach Chris Mack said, echoing sentiments from his team’s past two losses. “We had, against Florida State and Duke, the two toughest locker rooms I’ve been in during a regular season. I’m sure, to a certain extent, those ghosts were in our minds a bit.”
While starting strong their previous game against Duke, Louisville shot poorly in today’s first half. It was an awkward start overall, with a plethora of fouls and turnovers for a sluggish rhythm. The Cardinals shot under 30 percent from the field and trailed 23-19 at halftime.
“We fought for the full 40 minutes. We defended great. We rebounded great,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, referring to his team outshooting and outrebounding the Cards. “Obviously our thing today was some really poor turnovers that cost us in terms of offense.”
Things picked up during the second half as Louisville improved shooting. Graduate guard Christen Cunningham kickstarted the offense, with the help of sophomore Jordan Nwora, as they worked to a 55-47 lead with 35 seconds remaining.
Clemson wasn’t done, though, and took advantage of sloppy mistakes from Louisville. Two turnovers from the Cards and consecutive three-pointers from the Tigers made the Louisville lead 56-55.
“Mental errors and physical errors cannot be tolerated in winning time,” Mack said. “It’s the first time our guys have ever been in positions where they are closing games. We just have to be stronger with the ball. We have to.”
In a crazy sequence, Nwora turned the ball over with three seconds left. Clemson put up a shot for the win, Nwora blocked it, then the Tigers missed another shot to secure a 56-55 Louisville victory.
Suffice to say, the Cardinals still need to improve finishing games after fumbling leads to Florida State, Duke and (nearly) Clemson.
“I’ll tell you this,” Mack said. “I might have retired had we not blocked that shot at the very end.”
Cunningham led the Cards with 18 points and five assists. Nwora followed with 11 points and four rebounds, though he led the team with six turnovers. Sophomore Darius Perry scored eight points in his second straight game showing solid improvement.
“My teammates have always been trying to instill confidence into me, even when I’ve been going through my little woes,” Perry said. “It feels good to be able to get out there and hit some shots.”
Junior Steven Enoch scored six. Sophomore Malik Williams scored four with seven rebounds. Junior Dwayne Sutton scored four.
“We’re not happy with where we’re at,” Cunningham said. “But a win’s a win. Wins are hard to come by in the ACC. Obviously we could have finished better, but it’s a lot better feeling today than it was the last two games.”
With their ninth conference victory, the Cardinals still have a chance to finish near the top of the ACC. Although, if Louisville plays like they did against Clemson, they stand little chance against the likes of Virginia or even Syracuse.
“We’ve got one of the toughest schedules in the country. We got 18 wins and I feel like we punted three games away,” Mack said. “We have to get better in closing games. We’ll get better because of it.”
Louisville travels to face the Syracuse Orange on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m.
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Photos by Taris Smith & Jessica Abell / The Louisville Cardinal