Now we know have a good idea of what it’s like for a team to face the University of Louisville’s defense, having to scrape and claw every second of every possession every game. Struggling to maintain composure, having the wind knocked out of you, testing every basketball skill in the arsenal.
Steve Masiello, the pupil, throwing everything he had learned under his friend, tutor and former boss in the face of Rick Pitino, threatening to knock his father figure and his defending national championship team out in the first round. Knowing exactly what the Cardinals were doing on offense and defense, Masiello kept coming up with answers time after time, taking the Cardinals to the brink.
But Pitino and Masiello weren’t the only friends at each others’ throat. Russ Smith was playing against friends he had competed with in high school and on the blacktops and boroughs of New York City. Tough and gritty hombres, used to rough times and tough games, daring and unafraid on offense, physically aggressive and unyielding on defense.
They knew what to expect from Russ and how to deal with him, keeping him under control, allowing him only nine shots from the field. He would hit only three of them while making 11 of 15 free throw attempts, somehow managing to lead his team in scoring with 18 points.
When Smith emerged after halftime with a thumb all taped up, all kinds of bad visions emerged. He knew what to expect going in, knowing it was going to be the survival of the fittest. Louisville would emerge the winner by 71-64 margin, hoping not to face a Masiello team again anytime in the near future.
Luke Hancock, the cool one, was feeling the heat of the intense pressure, having to work extra hard for shots that weren’t there, having to settle for drawing fouls on his defenders, hitting all six of his free throw attempts. Finally, with most of them in foul trouble, Hancock would finally find some open spots on the floor, hitting his last two three-point attempts, finally driving a stake through the heart of Masiello’s troops.
Chris Jones withstood withering pressure bringing the ball up court, never letting it get to him, knowing exactly what to do with the ball, not allowing the Manhattan press to bear any resemblance to the UofL version. He committed zero turnovers the most stifling defense he has experienced in his college career.
The Cardinals survived an immensely physical challenge, a reminder of just how far they have advanced this past season, and a taste of just how challenging it will be to defend the championship. They have the will, just need to find the way.