Wednesday night, the 11th ranked University of Louisville basketball Cardinals (19-4, 7-3 Big East) left the friendly rims of the KFC Yum! Center where they played their last two games to go to Piscataway, New Jersey for a conference matchup with Rutgers(12-9, 3-7). It was the beginning of two games away from home for the Cards and it ended well. Louisville leaves Jersey with the victory, 68-48.
It hasn’t been the best of seasons for the Scarlet Knights as they came into this game on a four game losing streak. Louisville hasn’t lost to Rutgers since 2006, the Cards first season in the Big East. After that, UofL has beaten the Scarlet Knights by almost 20 points per game. Then put in the mix that the Cardinals are back from their mid season slump and you had all the makings of a beat down.
The nerves got to Rutgers early with traveling calls on successive possessions. The Cards committed mistakes, too, but they were able to pressure the home team into more painful missteps in the high school atmosphere of their gym.
Midway through the first half, the Cardinal defense had a little breakdown and coach Rick Pitino called a quick time out to get the troops back together. When that didn't work out the way he wanted, he put his main subs Kevin Ware, Montrezl Harrell and Stephen Van Treese on the floor. With Wayne Blackshear already out there, 4 starters rode the bench for an extended time. Was the coach making a point?
The Louisville offense didn't really click through the first half even though they led most of the way. In the half court, they had trouble with the Rutgers defense. On run outs, the Cards were unquestionably better. They just didn't get that many opportunities in the early part of the game. Going to the locker room, UofL led 28-26.
Coach Pitino had plenty of things to point out to his team. Like the fact that Russ Smith only had 3 points and wasn’t very involved in the offense. Gorgui Dieng went scoreless. Chane Behanan committed three turnovers. Blackshear’s 11 points seemed to be the only thing that kept the Cards from looking totally bad.
The television guys tried to make it sound like Blackshear’s scoring was a problem, but it was obvious they didn’t do their homework because they didn’t understand that Wayne is capable of those kinds of outbursts.
On the other hand Rutgers played their three guard lineup about as well as could be expected against the superior athletes of Louisville. Eli Carter had a good first period with 11 points. That pace wouldn't last and Carter would only score 2 points after halftime.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton
Louisville turned up the tempo to open the second half and extended their lead with a 23-2 run while getting their post players into the game, which is something that hadn’t happen earlier in the game. The Cards also went man-to-man on defense and really disrupted what Rutgers tried to do. It showed when you could see Scarlet Knight players hanging their heads and disputing officials calls.
How bad did it get for Rutgers? Through the first eleven minutes of the second half, they scored 6 points. The way Louisville wears their opponents down, both physically and mentally, got to the team from New Jersey. The Cards are better conditioned and can maintain intensity in a way that the Knights could not.
While Dieng didn't get it done on the offensive end, scoring only 2 points, he was a beast on defense. He blocked six shots, changed others and intimidated the Rutgers big men all game long. It's the Pitino philosophy. Just because you don't put it in the bucket doesn't mean you don't stop playing. That kind of defense creates the offense the Louisville finally found.
Russ Smith found his way back in the game in the second half with his father, Big Russ, looking on from the stands. Smith finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. We’re sure got a chance to have a Waffle House visit after the game.
It was also a big game for Blackshear. In only 14 minutes of play the entire game, he led all scorers with 19 points, a Cardinal career high. And don’t dismiss Peyton Siva. He owned the floor from his point guard position and led the Cards to the victory.
For Louisville, it’s now on to South Bend to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Saturday at 9. They return home to the KFC Yum! Center on Valentine’s Day for a 9 o’clock tipoff with St. John’s.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton