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Louisville proves Dieng tough on defense
It had been a struggle for Louisville this season.
Early on, the Cardinals had problems scoring after injuries cost them several players. Then their starting point guard Peyton Siva fell into a slump for more than a month.
And just in time for the Big East tournament, they lost four of their final six regular-season games.
But throughout it all, Louisville had been consistent defensively and only allowed three opponents to score more than 80 points. So just before the Cardinals entered postseason play, coach Rick Pitino called a team meeting and stressed to his players what he thought could carry them.
“We’re going to take the philosophy of playing defense,” Siva recalled Pitino saying. “Our offense hasn’t been clicking a lot. Let’s everybody just worry about defense.”
But those who should be worrying about Louisville’s stingy defense are opposing teams because it once again helped the Cardinals (29-9) overcome woes — this time offensively — during their gritty 57-44 victory Thursday night against top-ranked Michigan State (29-8) in the West Regional semifinals.
They forced the Spartans into more turnovers (15) than made field goals (14) as well as school-record lows for points and field percentage (28.6 percent) in an NCAA tournament game in front of a star-studded crowd that included Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson and Albert Pujols.
And despite shooting just 38.2 percent from the field, the Big East champs have won seven straight games and next play No. 7 seed Florida (26-10) for a chance at their first Final Four appearance since 2005. During their winning streak, they have held opponents to less than 70 points in all but one game.
“It’s the defense,” said sophomore center Gorgui Dieng, who had a game-high seven blocked shots along with nine rebounds and five points. “We’ve learned our lesson.”
So did Michigan State on Thursday night, the Louisville way. The Spartans struggled even to get a shot off inside the 3-point line against the Cardinals’ stingy 2-3 zone, especially in the first half, and finished just 14 of 49 from the field, which included a 5 of 21 effort from 3-point range.
It was as if Louisville had a force field. Actually, the Cardinals did in the Senegal-born, 6-foot-11, 235-pound Dieng, who entered the game averaging 3.1 blocks per game.
Pitino felt his team could beat Michigan State if it could keep Dieng on the court. He was on it for all 40 minutes and blocked everything from driving layups to jump shots near the top of the backboard’s box.
“He was the anchor in the middle,” said Michigan State star forward Draymond Green, who had just 13 points on 5 of 16 shooting along with a game-high 16 rebounds.
Dieng even made his first 3-pointer all season, one of seven his team had in the first half for a 23-18 halftime lead. The shot was as improbable as his path to becoming one of college basketball’s best shot-blockers.
When he arrived three years ago from Senegal to enroll at prep school, he resembled a light pole at just 187 pounds. A year later when he got to Louisville, he told Pitino he wanted to play in the NBA.
Pitino explained that he had coached in the NBA for eight years and told Dieng he would need to improve significantly to achieve his goal.
“So you’re going to have to bear with me,” Pitino recalled telling him. “I’m going to drive you like you’ve never been driven before.”
To which Dieng, who speaks five languages, replied, “What do you mean by drive?”
Dieng understood after last season, one in which Pitino worked him so hard that he constantly complained about being tired and his legs hurting.
“He changed my whole mentality,” said Dieng, who has a 7-4 wingspan. “He made me tougher.”
And while Dieng's defense made it tough inside Thursday night, Louisville's constant pressure made Michigan State look downright awkward. The Cardinals forced the Spartans' ball-handlers to change directions as much as possible to wear them down.
“Just turn them!” Pitino barked at his team. “Just turn them! Just turn them!”
When Michigan State finally battled to cut Louisville’s brief, 10-point lead to four with 10:59 left in the game, fatigue started to set in for the Spartans. After a layup by the Cardinals, Dieng blocked a shot, which led to a 3-pointer by teammate Chris Smith.
On the ensuing possession, Smith stole a pass in the backcourt and hit a cutting Kyle Kuric for a layup to put Louisville ahead 42-31. Michigan State never really challenged the rest of the game.
“It just wears people out,” Pitino said of his team’s pressure. “We didn’t really want to trap them. We wanted to run and jump to get to the legs.”
Spartans coach Tom Izzo knew Louisville had them after the Cardinals’ 7-0 run. He had pleaded with the game’s officials for foul calls most of the game, but after the spurt he practically begged for them.
After the game, Izzo said his team missed shots it usually makes and that he didn’t think any of his players performed “really well.”
“We ran out of gas a little bit emotionally, mentally and physically,” Izzo said. “Louisville had the gas and deserved to win.”
Actually, the Cardinals also had their defense. Just like they have all season.
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