The 6th ranked University of Louisville Cardinals (9-1) went on the road to the FedEx Forum to take on longtime rival Memphis (6-3). Earlier in the week, senior point guard Peyton Siva admitted he didn't know much about the history of the rivalry, but he knew it was time for everyone to step up their game against this former Top 25 opponent. A slew of Cards answered the call as they beat the Tigers, 87-78.
Memphis came out full of fire and emotion while the battle tested Cardinal team stayed composed, even when their usual offense didn't fire like it should have. Siva and Russ Smith handled the pressure in the backcourt, getting the big men a chance to set up, even though that didn’t do much good early on.
The Tigers didn't have much of a problem with Louisville's press either. In fact, they rebounded well on missed shots by the Cards. They were able to take advantage of the absence of the injured Gorgui Dieng and the ailing Stephen Van Treese. Freshman center Zach Price's inexperience proved a liability on the boards.
Louisville kept drawing fouls, but missed free throws early so it took longer to climb back into the game after trailing by as much as 16 points. Meanwhile the Tigers shot the lights out from the three point line. The Cards were forced to battle back the old fashioned way, led by the dribble penetration ability of Peyton Siva.
Russ Smith went down with 6 minutes to go in the first half and suddenly coach Rick Pitino had to find a way to put those 20 points back in the bucket. Van Treese eventually come into the game, sore knee and all. Smith came back into the game with 2 minutes left in the first half to take the point for Siva. His hustle was affected but not his heart. He led the Cards to halftime trailing 35-28.
The Cards came out of the locker room with Smith on the floor and good looks at the basket while a tiring Memphis squad backed off their press. What kept the Tigers in the game was their three point shooting. Louisville struggled at the arc until midway through the second half while Memphis got the benefit of friendly home rims.
All through the game, coach Pitino expressed frustration at his defense getting beaten for open shots and some of his timeouts were to let the team know. Too many threes and too many dunks in the half court offense had the coach seething.
As far as finding those Smith points, Luke Hancock and Chane Behanan covered. Behanan led the Cardinals with 22 points. Hancock poured in 11, including 3 triples. In fact, Louisville went on an 13-0 run to take the lead at 57-54. And Russ himself piled up points finishing with 19, mostly from the free throw line where he was a perfect 12 for 12.
He kept knocking down free throws because the Tigers kept fouling to put Louisville in the double bonus early in both halves. How bad was it? At the end of the game, 5 Tigers fouled out including 3 starters.
The Cardinals had to withstand the emotion early and play a smart game. By doing so, they clawed back with the tough road victory, one Peyton Siva will probably remember for a while. Next for the Cards is a Wednesday date with Florida International back home at the KFC Yum! Center.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton