Think there was pressure in the KFC Yum! Center on Monday night as the 12th ranked University of Louisville Cardinals (17-4, 5-3 Big East) came home to face the Pittsburgh Panthers (17-5, 5-4) on national television? Consider that ESPN made the game part of their Big Monday broadcast. Consider that Cardinal coach Rick Pitino called it a must win game. And even with all that, the Cards responded and got back into the winning column 64-61.
The pressure was amped up even more when the announcement came earlier in the afternoon that sophomore forward Wayne Blackshear would be out with a shoulder injury. The school said this injury is unrelated to the shoulder injury that he's already rehabbed. Blackshear had been coming on as of late and had developed into a decent three point shooting threat.
Then you read the next announcement. Sophomore reserve guard Kevin Ware has been suspended indefinitely. The team wouldn't elaborate further, but Ware put in decent minutes this season. He isn’t an offensive threat yet, but you didn't cringe with him playing defense.
So Pitt comes in riding a 4 game winning streak and enjoying an upswing in their program. Louisville had been going in the opposite direction. Throughout the game, Pitt wouldn’t go away quietly. On every Cardinal run, Pittsburgh found an answer.
Where the Panthers fell short was the free throw line. Card fans know that kind of problem all too well. Pitt finished the game shooting 25% from the line. Contrast that with UofL’s 76.5%, including a blistering 90.9% in the second half.
They needed it, too. During the closing minute, Pittsburgh scouted out who to foul. As soon as the poor free throw shooting sophomore forward Chane Behanan caught the pass, any Panther near him started hacking. Same for junior center Gorgui Dieng. Both players hit their free throws. "That was a big time, gutsy win," coach Pitino said in his press conference.
Senior point guard Peyton Siva continued to struggle with his shot, but rather than force that, he kept working on the other parts of his game. He finished with 10 assists and 2 steals to go along with his 2 points. Expect some razzing in the locker room, though, because Tim Henderson outscored him.
Russ Smith came back to his Russdiculous best. He occupied his normal position atop the stat sheet with 20 points and 5 rebounds. When he spoke to the media after the game, you can hear that missed shots or made shots don’t make him two excited one way or another. He doesn’t mind putting them up. He’s just talented enough for them to usually go in.
And chalk up another double-double for junior center Gorgui Dieng. He poured in 14 points to go with his 12 rebounds. His played a complete game, dishing 4 assists and swatting away 5 Pittsburgh shots.
The Panthers didn’t come into the game without weapons, though. Tray Woodall scored 14 and was instrumental in knocking down the three to keep Pitt in the game. He was 4 of 9 from the arc. Lamar Patterson hit 2 triples of his own and finished with 10 points.
The Cards return to the KFC Yum! Center on Super Bowl Sunday for a match up with #25 Marquette at 2pm.
Photos: Louisville.com/Tim Girton