By Matt Bradshaw —
No. 10 seed Minnesota (22-13) defeated No. 7 seed Louisville men’s basketball (20-14) in the opening game of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. They mustered a late comeback, but the Cardinals trailed by as much as 19 points during the contest and lost 86-76.
“It’s a really tough feeling, you know, to end your season so quickly in the NCAA Tournament,” head coach Chris Mack said. “I am very proud of our group. They exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. It’s sorta hard to see that in the moment, but to get a group that was picked 11th preseason in our conference and to represent our conference in the NCAA Tournament, I don’t take that lightly.”
Though technically an upset by seeding standards, the Golden Gophers had control for nearly the entire matchup. Head coach Richard Pitino’s squad nailed 11 three-pointers, more than the team’s combined totals from the entire Big Ten Tournament, on the way to an appearance in the second round of the Big Dance.
“That’s a terrific win for our guys,” Pitino said. “Louisville is a great team. That staff does a great job. Chris does a great job, so being proud is probably a bit of an understatement for these guys. It’s a special win.”
Louisville seemed unprepared for the way Minnesota kept nailing three’s, and it was telling.
“It’s one of those crazy things,” sophomore Jordan Nwora said. “They started making them and then they were hitting them at the end of the shot clock, fadeaways. We hadn’t seen anything like that on video.”
The Cards never performed consistently on offense. Fighting an uphill battle for the entire 40 minutes, the Cards failed to overcome their opponent’s deadly shooting and edge in the paint.
Graduate guard Christen Cunningham led the way on offense with 22 points, four assists and 13-for-13 shooting at the free throw line in his final game as a Cardinal. The Georgetown native said his one year playing in a Louisville uniform was the best year of his life.
“This was the greatest year of my life,” Cunningham said. “It was a completely different level of basketball I got to play at. I got a chance to play for one of the best coaches out there. I can’t say more about how much Coach Mack trusted me, giving me the keys to this team and this program. It’s not often that happens with a grad transfer and a program like Louisville. It was a great year for me. I certainly could have played better, but I could have played worse.”
Junior Steven Enoch scored 14 points with seven rebounds. Sophomore Darius Perry scored 12 points with some essential minutes played. Nwora, usually the leader on offense, scored 10 points with 11 rebounds.
Graduate guard Khwan Fore scored seven points with two assists and graduate forward Akoy Agau stayed on the bench in their final game in Louisville uniforms.
“I thought our three graduate transfers did a tremendous job of showing leadership and being every-day guys, and bringing some excitement back to Louisville basketball,” Mack said.
Fans may criticize this team all they want for the final results – and this team was undoubtedly flawed in ways – but all harsh reprimands are undeserved. Remember, Louisville was picked to finish 11th in the ACC with no incoming talent other than transfers at the beginning of the season.
The Cardinals could certainly have performed better, but they also accomplished more than anyone thought they would. They beat teams like North Carolina and competed with elites like Duke, they showed flashes of greatness and put Louisville men’s basketball back in the spotlight with a return to the NCAA tournament.
All that remains is remaining patient during the offseason. The return of players like Nwora is uncertain, but mainstays like Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon and V. J. King provide a solid foundations of veterans.
And with a highly-talented recruited class in the works, it’s not unreasonable to believe the Cards can make another step deeper in the tournament. Time will tell.
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Photos by Taris Smith / The Louisville Cardinal