Preston Knowles was going to shoot it. He always shoots it. It’s what the Louisville senior guard does.
Yet dribbling into the lane with the Cardinals down a point to Marquette on Saturday, the clock ticking perilously close to zero and three Golden Eagles in his face, Knowles spotted teammate Kyle Kuric all alone under the basket.
”They were all concentrating on me, and I made them pay for it,” Knowles said.
Did he ever.
Kuric’s layup with 4 seconds left off a heady assist from Knowles capped a furious rally by the 18th-ranked Cardinals (14-3, 3-1 Big East), who stunned the Golden Eagles 71-70 and provided their new downtown arena with its first signature moment.
”That’s one of the top-five comebacks,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. ”They outplayed us for the first 34 minutes. I’m really proud of these guys. I’m shaking. It happened so fast.”
Too fast for the Golden Eagles (12-6, 3-2) to respond.
Marquette dominated the game for long stretches but came undone over the final 5:44, making just two field goals during that span and throwing away several chances to notch its second win over a ranked opponent in five days.
The Golden Eagles had one final shot after Kuric’s bucket, but Jimmy Butler’s runner in the lane glanced off the rim as the horn sounded.
”We did not finish the game with poise,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. ”We did not play with the same sort of mentality that we had played with up until that point. That is my fault more than it is anybody else’s.”
Darius Johnson-Odom led the Golden Eagles with 16 points and Butler had 15 points and nine rebounds, but Marquette fell apart after taking a 65-47 lead with under 6 minutes to go.
The Golden Eagles had so thoroughly controlled the game up to that point some in the capacity crowd at Louisville’s new KFC! Yum Center put on their coats and headed out, perhaps hoping to get the rest of their weekend chores done following the 11 a.m. tipoff.
Yet in the Louisville huddle Kuric and company refused to surrender. The Cardinals had wilted in the second half of a loss to No. 7 Villanova on Wednesday, a defeat that seemed to expose their many shortcomings. Louisville was pounded on the glass by the Wildcats and stagnant when forced to play in the half court.
”If we were going to lose, we were going to lose fighting,” said Kuric, who finished with 10 points. ”Coach was saying, ‘play until the end.”’
Louisville’s run started quietly.
Sophomore center Stephan Van Treese got loose for a dunk. Knowles knocked down a 3-pointer and Van Treese added a layup to get the Cardinals within 65-54.
Louisville’s momentum continued to build. The Cardinals got a stop, leading to another 3-pointer from the streaky Knowles, who scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half.
Chris Smith knifed in for a layup and Knowles drilled a 3-pointer from the wing with a hand in his face to cut the deficit to 65-62 with 1:51 to go.
Jae Crowder steadied the Golden Eagles with a difficult layup in traffic to push Marquette’s lead back to five. Knowles hit his fourth 3-pointer in less than 4 minutes to pull Louisville within 67-65. Dwight Buycks responded with a contested layup to move the advantage back to 69-65.
Louisville center Terrence Jennings, a 62 percent free-throw shooter, sandwiched four free throws around one by Marquette’s Junior Cadougan and all of a sudden Marquette led just 70-69 with 24.4 seconds to go.
The Cardinals tried to foul Buycks in the backcourt but he broke loose and headed to the basket. His shot, however, was swatted by Jennings and Louisville had the ball with 12 seconds left.
”I was about to call a timeout but didn’t because we broke the pressure and I thought (Buycks) was going to dribble it out but he didn’t, but that’s OK,” Williams said.
Following a timeout the ball made its way to Knowles, who curled to the top of the key as three Marquette players converged. He stepped into the lane and found Kuric all by himself. The ball rolled around the rim and in as the crowd exploded.
”It had nothing to do with me,” Kuric said. ”It was all Preston.”
Butler had plenty of time to get off a good shot, but his runner from about 15 feet was offline and Marquette’s collapse was complete.
Marquette’s stunning stumble prevented the Golden Eagles from building on their dominant 22-point win over No. 9 Notre Dame on Monday. Suddenly, that seems like a long time ago.
Louisville won despite foul trouble for all four of its major frontcourt contributors. Jennings, Van Treese, Gorgui Dieng and George Goode spent most of the game marching back and forth to the bench after another whistle.
Marquette kept attacking the lane and kept getting the calls, outscoring the Cardinals 28-12 at the free-throw line.
Yet the Golden Eagles, in the midst of an eight-game stretch featuring seven games against ranked opponents, couldn’t make it hold up.
Pitino challenged his team to be tougher after they were manhandled by Villanova. The Cardinals responded by outrebounding Marquette 38-36 and actually outscored the Golden Eagles in the paint 30-28, the final two on the biggest play of Kuric’s career.
”We learned a lot about character,” Kuric said. ”Don’t give up.”