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As he strode off the court and into the locker room at halftime of his team’s game Monday night at Virginia, Rick Pitino might as well have been beaming.
Bright smiles aren’t exactly on page one of the Louisville coach’s facial expression playbook, so his satisfaction didn’t quite translate into unrepressed happiness, but through 20 minutes in Charlottesville, Pitino had plenty of reasons to be pleased. Minus four regulars who average a collective 35 points per game, his fourth-ranked Cardinals led the 12th-ranked Cavaliers 34-32, and, frankly, nobody could believe it. Perhaps not even Pitino.
“We really did play a beautiful half,” he told ESPN at halftime. “It was almost a perfect half by a depleted crew.”
Perhaps even Pitino also knew, though, that the near flawless performance was too good to be true; too good to continue. After the break, his fears were realized. The Cardinals scored just five points in the first 11 minutes of the second half. Pitino fumed. Louisville’s two-point lead turned into a 15-point deficit, and eventually into a 71-55 defeat.
And in those 11 minutes of offensive futility — or rather in Virginia’s 11 minutes of defensive solidity — order was restored.
Pitino, you see, has never won at John Paul Jones Arena. Louisville came into Monday’s game 1-4 against Virginia since moving to the ACC in 2014, and came in with a dire offensive record. In three of the four losses, the Cardinals had scored fewer than 20 first-half points. In three of the four, they’d scored fewer than 50 points overall. In the five games overall, they’d scored 0.87 points per possession. Pitino and his players simply couldn’t solve Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense.
Now they had to do it without starting point guard Quentin Snider, sidelined with a hip injury; without fellow guard Tony Hicks, out with a broken bone in his hand; and without swingman Deng Adel and center Mangok Mathiang, suspended for violating the team’s curfew after Saturday’s win at Boston College.
With the absences and past shortcomings in mind, Monday’s first half really was shocking, and really was impressive. Freshman guard V.J. King stepped into a starting and starring role. He scored a game-high 12 first-half points, and a career-high 24 on the night. The Cardinals spaced the floor, took care of the ball, and equaled their best offensive half against Virginia under Pitino.
Louisville did all this with a rotation that featured Matz Stockman, a Norwegian big man who had played all of 10 minutes in ACC play; Jay Henderson, a walk-on; and Ryan McMahon, a former three-star guard who is generously listed at 6-foot. The starting lineup featured David Levitch, a former walk-on who plays 11 minutes per game.
It’s no wonder, then, that Louisville’s success dried up in the second half. The likes of McMahon and Levitch held their own in the first half; they were overmatched in the second. Donovan Mitchell and King combined for 20 second-half points. The rest of the roster didn’t make a single field goal, and scored just one point. Virginia’s defense, the second best unit in the country, shut down everything the Cardinals tried to do, and held them to 0.68 points per possession.
But that was to be expected. On paper, the nation’s No. 4 team lost by 16 to an inferior one. In reality, the outcome shouldn’t be at all surprising or worrying. If anything, the performance was encouraging. With Snider on the brink of a return, and the missteps of Adel and Mathiang a one-time occurrence, Louisville might not be all that far from where it needs to go, even if Monday’s second half was yet another bitter pill to swallow in Charlottesville.