Malik Williams quietly efficient, Louisville downs Notre Dame

Christen Cunningham wrapping up his one and only season but always a Cardinal with 14 points on Senior Day (Cindy Rice Shelton photos).
Malik Williams bringing his game on defense against Notre Dame’s John Mooney. Turning in his best game of the year with his third double-double (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Malik Williams has had more than his share of criticism  of a perceived lack of quality at the center position. An issue taking a toll on the fortunes of  University of Louisville basketball.

There was little for anyone to find fault with Williams’ performance in UofL’s 75-61 win over Notre Dame on Sunday. None of those questionable shots, none of those awkward turnovers, no reason to throw up one hands in frustration.

Pretty much going unnoticed while turning in what may have been the best game of the 6-foot-11 sophomore’s career. Playing within the system, turning in his third double-double of the season, contributing 16 points and 13 rebounds.  

V. J. King with an encouraging performance, with 10 rebounds, 6 points and 2 assists (Cindy Rice Stephens photo).

Connecting on six out of seven field goal attempts, none of them flirting with NBA-type distances behind the 3-point arc. Making all of his free throws, four of four from the foul line, thank you.

Letting the game come to him while enabling Jordan Nwora and Christen Cunningham to do their things. Nwora with his own double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Cunningham with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Also showing welcome signs of progress was V. J. King. The 6-foot-6 junior bringing it on defense and contributing a career-best 10 rebounds to go with six points and two assists. No turnovers either in a performance that had to be personally encouraging for him. Not to be overlooked was Darius Perry with nary a turnover to go with seven points and two rebounds.

Not one of those epic UofL-Notre Dame games, often resulting in multiple overtimes. Not a great Irish team to be honest. But a good game for the Cardinals, something to build on for a change.

Nice to be back in the win column, support players being supportive, making noticeable differences, playing their roles.

Senior Day images from Cindy Rice Shelton.

Nwora overcomes mini-meltdown, Louisville survives Clemson

Clinging to a one-point lead with 2.46 seconds on the clock, needing only to get the ball in for the win. So little time but too much left to ever take anything for granted with this team.

Christen Cunningham back to his winning ways after the breakdown against Duke (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Still another worst way to lose a game looming. Large.

Five turnovers already. A vision of ruination, Jordan Nwora with the ball under the Clemson basket, needing only to throw a full court pass to somebody. 

But there he is, searching, seemingly lost, throwing the ball into a crowd below the basket. A bounce pass directly into the hands of Clemson’s Marcquise Reed … in the best possible position to score. 

Close eyes, open eyes.

That’s Nwora blocking the shot and Louisville winning the game 56-55 before a crowd of 16,000-plus at the KFC Yum! Center, improving the record to 18-8. A hangover game of almost epic proportions, following a 23-point implosion four days ago.

Could just as easily have been a third straight loss had it not be for Nwora.  It was his second block but coming on a day when he had six turnovers and missed all five of his three-point attempts (he did make 11 points).

Meanwhile, Christen Cunningham was back in his leadership mode, handing out five assists, making three steals and two turnovers and connecting on six of 11 field goal attempts. That included four of five three-point attempts and a team-leading 18 points. 

The Cardinals were again severely tested with hanging onto the ball at crunch time, with three of their 12 turnovers coming with less than 25 seconds in the game. The good news is they know their weaknesses, the bad is the fumble-itis with games on the line.

Not possible, no way, no how, but Louisville throttles North Carolina

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

Never. Be real.

The last thing anyone expected, especially among longtime diehard University of Louisville basketball fans. Go ahead and pencil in another L, no way to avoid getting mopped off the floor at Chapel Hill. A certain North Carolina runaway.

No rush switching on the TV, no hurry to see a blowout, tuning in less than a minute to tipoff. Afraid to watch, knowing no lead is safe, expecting the worst. No chance in hell. Bring it on, getting used to the bad news.

Except that the worst wasn’t to be. Not this day.

Two hours after comparing this group to a friend at Kroger with a bunch of YMCA basketball junkies, telling him not to get his hopes up. This Louisville team had wrapped up an 83-62 win over North Carolina before 21,000-plus fans on their home court, the 21-point loss the largest ever for UNC under Coach Roy Williams.

Two hours after comparing this group to a friend at Kroger with a bunch of YMCA basketball junkies, telling him not to get his hopes up.

Exactly what UofL fans needed, those expecting a long, long season, losing faith, having resigned themselves to the worst. A win at the least expected moment, over one of college basketball’s blue bloods, a giant booster shot three games into the heart of the ACC schedule.

Think maybe Coach Chris Mack’s message about keeping players in front of them and out of the lane finally reached its audience? One kept expecting that perpetual flurry of UNC fast break layups, alley oops and back door slams. But they never came. Rarely has a North Carolina team thrown up so many bricks.

Jordan Nwora bringing his game face, with a different look, ready to rumble, no hint of ambivalence. Steven Enoch tired of riding the bench, bringing a different game, one that some had given up ever seeing, probably  his best ever. Dwayne Sutton again bringing that warrior mentality, fearless and aggressive.

The three of them sharing team-high scoring honors with 17 points apiece. Sutton with an amazing seven assists, Christen Cunningham with five assists. Only five turnovers during the game, compared to 14 for North Carolina. Out-rebounding the Tar Heels, 40-31. An unlikely 11 rebounds from Enoch, 10 rebounds for Sutton — first time double-doubles for each.

The most impressive performance by a Louisville basketball team in quite a while, coming on the heels of an ugly loss to Pittsburgh. The players maybe ready to listen. Mack with the same old message, keep the ball in front of you, keep them out of the lane. “When you do that, they will have a tough time scoring against you,” said Mack.

Keep that in mind, guys, and there could well be many more good times ahead this season.

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Restoring Louisville basketball not expected to be easy for Chris Mack

Lots of ups and downs for Louisville basketball during the first season under Coach Chris Mack (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

The challenges confronting Chris Mack faces in returning University of Louisville to the elite ranks of college basketball were never more obvious than in the 89-86 loss to Pittsburgh. Those easy wins UofL fans were expecting in January are suddenly doubtful and elusive.

If 2018-19 was supposed to be a rebuilding season under the new Louisville coach, he is still frantically searching for the building blocks for the foundation. Though they never quit in Wednesday’s game, the Cardinals never really got started. Strongly resembling last year’s team,  struggling against an Atlantic Coast Conference bottom feeder.

Certainly not a good night for Jordan Nwora, the team’s leading scorer.  He appeared to be least likely player getting the ball with the game on the line. A poor shooting night, making only two of 14 field goal attempts, while making four turnovers. Many of his shots didn’t have a chance, some of them seemingly thrown at random.

Point guard Christen Cunningham again forced to provide the offensive leadership, recognizing what needed to be done. Fearless in going to the basket, taking the sensible shots, finding open teammates. He would score a team-high 23 points and make five assists, all without committing a single foul.

Cunningham actually contributing what his team needed most, a sense of urgency. Playing within the system, on a night when some of his teammates appeared unsure of their roles and how they fit within the system. Whether they can get it, recommit and get their collective act together, or if they are capable of getting better, remains to be seen.

If they are not paying attention to their new coach, if they unable to grasp what he wants them to do, or if there is just not enough talent to overcome these disparities, this season could easily become a placeholder until Chris Mack’s first recruiting class takes over next year.