No. 15 Cardinals thriving in the clutch
Louisville coach Rick Pitino grew so annoyed about being asked who his team's go-to player was early in the season he put a moratorium on the question.
Turns out the answer isn't senior captain Preston Knowles, sophomore Peyton Siva or junior Kyle Kuric, it's all of the above.
The 15th-ranked Cardinals (17-5, 6-3 Big East) are a surprise contender in the nation's toughest conference thanks to a series of last-second victories that haven't been for the faint of heart. There's the 18-point comeback in the final 6 minutes against Marquette, the 11-point rally against West Virginia, the double-overtime win at No. 6 Connecticut last week.
Louisville is 3-1 in games decided by three points or less this year. Not bad for a team without the kind of go-to player that has been a staple of the program since Pitino arrived, a legacy that stretched from Francisco Garcia to Terrence Williams to - for better or worse - Edgar Sosa.
Pitino isn't complaining and doesn't think the Cardinals are lucky. He's not quite sure they're good either.
''We've shown a lot of heart, a lot of courage,'' Pitino said. ''But you can't keep doing that, sooner or later ... your luck runs out.''
It did in the final seconds against Georgetown on Monday, where another second-half surge fell short in an 62-59 loss. Still, Louisville remains in the thick of the Big East race heading into Saturday's game against reeling DePaul (6-15, 0-9). The Cardinals, however, aren't expecting a breather even though they're facing a team riding a 22-game conference losing streak.
Louisville will be without leading scorer Preston Knowles, who tweaked a hamstring injury against the Hoyas. He'll join starters Rakeem Buckles (finger) and Gorgui Dieng (concussion) on the bench.
''We're very concerned with what we're putting on the floor to compete tomorrow,'' Pitino said. ''We're foul trouble away from getting beat.''
Injuries, however, are nothing new. The Cardinals have won despite playing with just one healthy power forward most of the season and using a small three-guard lineup that leaves them at a distinct size disadvantage most nights.
Yet it hasn't stopped Louisville, picked to finish eighth in the conference in the preseason, from being one of the most pleasant surprises in the country.
Kuric, who threw in the game-winning layup against Marquette with 4 seconds remaining, said the team's lack of stars is precisely the reason they don't panic when it gets tight late. Rather than throw it to one player and let him try to be the hero, every guy on the floor plays a role in late-game situations.
''We're not focused on'' who takes the shot, Kuric said. ''It's just a whole team aspect.''
In the final play against Marquette, freshman point guard Elisha Justice fed the ball to Knowles, who drew three defenders before finding a wide-open Kuric under the basket. Against West Virginia the Cardinals spread the floor, clearing the way for Siva to get free for the twisting game-winning layup. On the road versus the Huskies, Knowles hit Mike Marra for a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left in regulation before got loose for a dunk to send it to overtime.
Pitino is encouraged by his team's resiliency. Of course, he'd prefer the Cardinals not put themselves in a significant hole before deciding to get going.
''Against DePaul I hope we're only down 4-5 late in the game,'' he quipped.
The Cardinals won't be if they can continue to get a major contribution from enigmatic center Terrence Jennings. The junior was benched in favor of Dieng early in the season and appeared to be on his way to a lost season.
Dieng's concussion, however, has thrust Jennings back into a more prominent role. He's averaging 13 points and 8.6 rebounds over the last three games and is showing a flair for the dramatic at the free-throw line. He's converted several key shots recently, including four critical free throws in the final minute against Marquette.
Pitino is refusing to call Jennings' play a breakthrough. He still sees too many glimpses of dominance and not enough consistency.
Jennings, however, is a perfect example of how Louisville has been able to survive. He's emerged in critical moments, just as the rest of his teammates have done.
It's been a fun run for Pitino, but he's not enjoying it at the moment. Ask him in a month when everybody is healthy.
''I'm just trying to keep them from falling apart,'' he said. ''That's not a good sign. Nobody's practicing. Nobody's improving. Nobody's getting better. ... It's a really, really uncomfortable experience.''
One he'll continue to endure, so long as the Cardinals keep winning.