Mitchell early, Johnson late, Louisville nudges Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech arriving in town with some major aspirations, after knocking off Virginia in its last game, wanting to add an exclamation mark against the University of Louisville.

Jaylen Johnson getting to know his way around the basket lately (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Fired up, driven, with the familiar site of Coach Buzz Williams all worked up on the sideline, shedding his jacket early, changing from suit and tie at half time for a moisture-resistant sweatshirt in the final 20 minutes.

No time for any mistakes, not with Virginia Tech hitting 60% of its field goal attempts, and even better behind the 3-point line. UofL just refusing to wilt, coming away with a 94-90 win.

The visiting Hokies bringing their Barnum & Bailey circus act to town, along with a high-octane offense. They would tie an all-time record for 17 three-point baskets, daring the Cardinals to relax, take a couple of plays off.

Wasn’t going to happen Saturday, not with UofL committing a season-low three turnovers before a crowd of 21,524 fans Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.

Ryan McMahon with three 3-pointers in the second half (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Donovan Mitchell would take control for Louisville in the first half, connecting on his first six shots, including three 3-pointers en route while leading all scorers with 26 points.

Jaylen Johnson would take over in the second half, cleaning up beneath the basket time after time. He would score all 16 of his points in the second half, making six of nine from the field, and four of five at the free throw line. He would also have eight rebounds.

Then there was Ryan McMahon to the rescue again, making three of four 3-point shots in the second half, helping Louisville to overcome a deficit and take the lead for good.

“I wondered how we could win this game,” said Coach Rick Pitino afterwards. “Making our free throws coming the stretch was big for us. We won this game with offense.”

The Cardinals are tied for second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, converging for a showdown at North Carolina at 9 p.m. next Wednesday.

Virginia Tech never was a team to be taken for granted, very much a threat with tournament time approaching. However, the Hokies weren’t about to slip up on Louisville, not this day, not with so much at stake for the Cardinals.

Ryan McMahon off the bench, carries Louisville past Syracuse in overtime

Ryan McMahon the guy who usually leads the cheers on the bench was leading the University of Louisville on the court at Syracuse in overtime on Big Monday. (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

One of the most unpredictable games ever, no one ever really in command or playing under control, last one with the basketball wins … unless someone turns the ball over or dribbles it out of bounds.

Keystone cops near the end of regulation, balls bouncing off of heads, toes, butts and elbows. Or maybe a pinball game, balls ricocheting off the flappers, winding up with the weirdest angles, sometimes even in the basket.

The comedy on the court upstaged only by Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim roaming around with his mouth wide open, unable to believe any call could go against his Syracuse team. University of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino trying hard to stifle a smile or a smirk (who knows?) with the game on the line in the closing seconds of regulation. 

Anything seemed possible but winning the least likely after Donovan Mitchell fouled out at the 1:18 mark, with UofL clinging to a fragile five-point lead. No surprise Syracuse coming back to tie it up after one of those Keystone cop plays on a three-pointer by John Gillon. Deng Adel missing the front end of two bonus situations.  This one was destined for overtime.

With Mitchell out, Adel missing everything and Snider all but exhausted, the question was where UofL’s points were going to come from in this overtime.

Wait, is that Ryan McMahon out there? Was that Ryan McMahon with that 3-point jumper? Was that Ryan McMahon with an offensive rebound, cleaning up the garbage?

Syracuse fans had to be wondering, thinking, “Who is this guy?” They hadn’t seen him the entire game.

Yes, indeed, it was, Pitino confirming it. “Ryan never met a shot he didn’t like,” said the coach. “He has nerves of steel.”

Entirely appropriate that Ryan McMahon would be the UofL player at the line with one second on the clock, all but sealing the 76-72 win by swishing two of two free throws. Should have been over but that was only assured in the final split second when a Syracuse player stepped out of bounds. 

Louisville had outlasted Syracuse, but this time Ryan McMahon, usually leading cheers on the bench, was leading the charge on the floor when the final horn sounded.

The man:

Snider, Mathiang and Deng back but Louisville defense tardy

Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang were back but the offense was sputtering before a late surge for the Unverrsity of Louisville (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

No concern the game does not begin well, Miami jumping out to an 8-0 lead over the University of Louisville. Not to worry, UofL almost back at full strength, with Quentin Snider back, along with Mangok Mathiang and Deng Adel. Happy days are here again.

Fortunately for UofL, Jaylen Johnson was around to get the “lunch-pail”buckets, per Rick Pitino (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

That was exactly the kind of mentality that concerned Coach Rick Pitino before the game. “I was afraid of that,” he said afterwards. “We had been overachieving so much. Ninety-five to ninety percent of teams lose this game. Miami was the better basketball team, they totally outplayed us in every phase of the game.”

Indeed. The Hurricanes seemed to be scoring almost at will in the first half. “We let them drive by us on straight-line drives,” added the coach. “We didn’t rebound well, we didn’t shoot well and we didn’t pass well.”

Yet Pitino said the game may have been the best of the year character-wise. “When the game was on the line, we did all of the above,” he said. “But we’ve still got a lot of work to do on defense.”

Louisville emerged the 71-66 winner after scoring 13 straight points in the second half. The crushing blow, a three-point dagger followed by a free throw from Adel at the 4:22 mark, giving his team a six-point lead and its largest in the game. Adel would make two out of three 3-point attempts, sharing scoring honors with Donovan Mitchell with 18 points.

Snider would need a little time to get going after missing six games with a hip injury. He would miss all three of his shots in the first half, but hit three of five attempts in the second — including a crucial 3-pointer with 41 seconds remaining.

Jaylen Johnson sometimes missing the easy shots but making the impossible ones, delivering what Pitino called a “lunch-pail” effort with 10 points, eight rebounds, a block and a couple of steals. 

Mathiang picking up the slack thankfully as Anas Mahmoud regresses. Anas with three turnovers, zero points and a couple of rebounds while Mangok is collecting seven points and eight rebounds — and three out of four free throw attempts.

The win improves UofL record to 20-5 overall, and 8-4 in the conference, tied for second place before the evening games. Syracuse next, at Syracuse on Monday.

Quentin Snider making his way back for Louisville basketball

Quentin Snider weary of watching from the bench (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Great news that Quentin Snider has been cleared to practice with the University of Louisville basketball team. Watching from the sidelines over the past three weeks has probably been more painful than the injury.

Snider was knocked out of action after taking a hard fall after a layup against Duke. He was averaging 12.1 points and 2.6 rebounds. He was making five assists per outing in his last four games. 

Earlier he had perhaps the best game of his career in leading the Cardinals to a win over Kentucky, putting a career high 22 points against the Wildcats. The 6-foot-1 junior was coming into his own, embracing his leadership role, thriving in the Rick Pitino system.

Hard to gauge how much he was actually missed, with UofL winning four of six games in his absence. Louisville won games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, NC State and Boston College by an average of 31 points while faltering against Florida State and Virginia. 

UofL appeared to have made tremendous strides over the past month, enough so that some analysts were expecting the Cardinals to be competitive against Virginia. That was already asking a lot with the absence of Snider and Tony Hicks but made worse with the one-game suspensions of Mangok Mathiang and Deng Adel.

No question that Donovan Mitchell became almost indispensable during Snider’s absence, gaining in confidence and shooting accuracy, along with a sharper appreciation for the point guard role. He can only benefit from Snider’s return.

The hope here is that the injury has no lasting effects on him. Snider could play as early as the game against Miami on Saturday. Don’t expect much after missing practice for almost four weeks. 

Snider never was the quickest guard but he knows how to work the Pitino system. Just having him on the court will be a major plus.

Bloody Monday for Louisville basketball teams

It was either going to be a great start for the week … or an ugly one. And the uglies won, going away.

Should have known going in that it was going to be one of those Mondays when nothing goes right. If Mondays aren’t already challenging enough, why not start the week off with the University of Louisville on the road against two top 10 teams?

After learning that Mangok Mathiang and Deng Adel had been suspended, my wife had suggested early in the day going out to a movie.  Not much hope for the women either, not with Myisha Hines-Allen still not ready for the game at Notre Dame.

The eternal optimist should have taken her advice.

The games were on consecutive on ESPN channels making it easy to follow both teams. Turned out to be double trouble, the UofL women never in the game against Notre Dame, the men seemingly never returning from the locker room after half time against Virginia.

The 71-55 loss to the Cavaliers, a team that appeared ready to get beaten, ended a four-game winning streak for the UofL men. The player suspensions, combined with the injuries, took their toll this night while raising questions about this team’s chemistry. So many ups and downs are not consistent with building momentum down the stretch.

The women, meanwhile, were losing to Notre Dame still again, this time 85-66, their second consecutive loss. They were behind by five at the end of the first quarter and out of it trailing by 22 at the half. Without Hines-Allen around, they lack toughness, getting pushed around too easily, surprisingly easily for a team with so much size.

Mondays are always challenging, some worse than others.