In their first game of the Big East Tournament, the University of Louisville Cardinals stepped onto the court at Madison Square Garden to play the Villanova Wildcats. It was a rematch from January in which Nova won on their home floor. Thursday night, the Wildcats saw a very different Cardinal team and it didn't go well for them. Louisville hammered Villanova 74-55.
The Cards didn't see action in the tournament earlier this week by virtue of the double-bye that they earned as Big East regular season co-champions. When they did finally make it to the big stage, those adidas uniforms got some attention, for better or worse.
Perhaps Louisville took a while recognize each other in those unis because they didn't score until about 4 minutes into the game on a Wayne Blackshear triple. Luke Hancock followed up with another trey and the Cardinal scoring finally got underway. In fact, Louisville opened the game with three three-pointers in a row.
The Cardinals handled the Villanova defense, which was tenacious. However Wildcats had all kinds of trouble with the Louisville press. The game had the feel of indoor football at times which became a hallmark of Big East basketball a while ago. The Cards continued to show their toughness, playing through borderline flagrant fouls to maintain the lead through most of the first half.
After climbing to a 10 point lead, Louisville went cold from the field. How cold? They didn't make a field goal for 8 minutes. During that drought they missed some of their defensive press opportunities. The half-court defense remained solid, though, and as this team knows, that will create points. That's what happened. Louisville followed their dry spell with a 8-0 run.
Actually, if the offense could have clicked anywhere close to the last game against Notre Dame, Louisville could have been up by 20. Instead, Nova was lucky to keep the lead down in single digits for the balance of the first half.
At halftime, the Cards led 30-21. Both teams shot poorly with neither team leaving to 30’s in terms of field goal percentage. Peyton Siva re-donned his Superman cape that he uses in the Big East Tournament and scored 9 points in the first half. His offense would be kryptonited in the second half, though.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton
Villanova had the advantage on the boards, grabbing 20 rebounds to Louisville’s 13 and they outscored the Ville by 10 in the paint so the locker room adjustment had to be to get tougher inside.
Coming out of the break, the game reopened on a Cardinal three. Louisville wanted to keep outside pressure on to try to open the lane for Gorgui Dieng. He took advantage by using his spin moves when he started knocking down his short jumper.
Meanwhile, Smith made the Wildcats pay. Not known as a prolific three point threat, he nailed his opportunities in the second half to help his final total of 28 points. Hancock did the same from long range as well as dribble-drives inside, which wasn't a skill he showed too much in the regular season. And they did it while Villanova took their defense to hockey levels.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said "you have to get tasered to get a foul in this game" after a replay showed Smith hitting a three while being fouled, then knocked down and finally stepped on. And still Louisville stretched the lead to 16 by that point.
In the end, the Louisville defense and athleticism wore down Villanova, just like they have to their Big East rivals all season. Nova will make the big dance, but it's the Cards that go on to play Notre Dame in the semi-final as they take away the win 74-55. Friday night's game could be wilder, given the history between the Cardinals and the Fighting Irish.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton