The University of Louisville Cardinals (6-1) came back to the friendly confines of the KFC Yum! Center Saturday afternoon after an intense tournament in the Bahamas and a week off. That should have meant tanned and rested. Instead the layoff left them rusty confused against the Illinois State Redbirds (5-2). However, the Cardinals also proved gritty and resourceful in working their way to a 69-66 victory.
Illinois State jumped out to a 14-2 lead early in the first half with aggressive play and a lights out perimeter game. The Missouri Valley Conference team shot 58.3% in the first half. Some were easy layups and dunks down low that took advantage of the absence of Louisville’s 6-11 center Gorgui Dieng (broken wrist). They also hit relatively well guarded jump shots, too.
On the Cardinal end of the floor, things didn’t go nearly as well. In the early going, Louisville looked like they had a difficult time settling down and getting into their offense. Zach Price started the game at center but came out early due to ineffectiveness. Stephen Van Treese played the bulk of the minutes in the middle, but he had some issues letting the Illinois State big men get behind him in the lane.
Also ineffective were Luke Hancock, Kevin Ware and, surprisingly, Wayne Blackshear. Hancock’s shooting struggles are well known. Ware has been good in spurts and Blackshear, though not stellar, most of the time gives a good accounting of himself. This game didn’t work out like that.
The Cards went into halftime trailing 33-25. When you shoot 12.5% from 3 point range and 28.6% from the free throw line that’s going to happen. Chane Behanan struggled from the stripe all game, going 1 for 7. Coach Rick Pitino even mentioned that in the post game press conference, saying Behanan needs to listen and change up his shooting motion. He’s so good inside that he’s going to be fouled a lot later in the season and he needs to drain them.
Louisville rallied in the second half on Russ Smith dribble penetrations and Peyton Siva’s outside shooting. Siva knocked down 4 three pointers as Illinois State continued to clog up the middle to try to stop Behanan, Van Treese and Montrezl Harrell who played productive minutes. Siva stayed in control despite foul trouble. He directed the offense while hitting his shot. He totaled 20 points in the game.
And, as the saying goes, Russ Smith is always open even when he’s not. Smith’s penetration sent him to the line 14 times, where he hit 11 of them. And he hit clutch jumpers when he had to. After the game coach Pitino said Smith could have single handedly lost the game, but he also single handedly won the game. Smith finished with 24 points.
The Redbirds were game til the end, but Louisville finally climbed out of their self excavated hole with scrappy play. The Cards had 40 points in the paint. They also had 26 points off turnovers. Without shots going in, the Cards remained defensive minded. With less than 5 minutes to go in the game, the last of the rust finally shook loose and the Cards got the win.
Next for Louisville, they travel to College of Charleston on Tuesday for a game televised on ESPNU at 9pm.
Photos: Louisville.com/Tim Girton