By Dan Gardella
Brooklyn, NY – With the new era in Louisville fairly young, the Cardinals got their first test in the Chris Mack administration in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip Off against the Tennessee Volunteers, who entered the game ranked eighth in the nation.
In a game that was at or around a one possession lead on either side for a majority of the game, upperclassmen leaders Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield stepped up, scoring 24 and 20 points respectively while combining to grab 15 rebounds to propel the Volunteers to the NIT Season Tip Off Championship with a 92-81 victory.
Out of the gate, Louisville looked prepared and ready to turn some heads during Feast Week. The Cardinals opened the scoring on a Dwayne Sutton three pointer but would fall behind two minutes later after surrendering baskets by Grant Williams and Jordan Bone.
For the first ten minutes of the contest, the lead did not grow more than one possession on either side. It was at this point fans realized, “They aren’t going to go away easily.”
The Volunteers would lead for most of the first half, but could only get their lead up to as much as seven, that with 10:32 in the half. That lead would be cut back to two just a minute later.
Louisville would re-take the lead from the Volunteers with 9:18 left in the first on a Jordan Nwora slam to give the Cardinals a 27-26 lead. Ryan McMahon will eventually stretch the lead to four before Tennessee responded with a 5-0 run to give them the lead back.
Yeah, it was that kind of game.
Tennessee would go into the locker room at halftime leading 45-40. However, there was reason to believe Louisville would come back. The Cardinals shot 41% from behind the arc in the opening frame and had many different options to give the ball to.
For the Volunteers, it was apparent early on that Grant Williams was going to have one of those big time performances on Feast Week, where just one year ago, a man named Trae Young made a name for himself.
“He’s longer than most people think and he’s gotten himself in better shape,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “He’s worked hard on shooting the ball. He can get better.”
It would be more of the same in the second half as the lead would not get larger than six through the first twelve minutes of the contest. Louisville would continue to knock down the long range shot along with being able to maintain, not stop, but maintain the Volunteers enough to keep things interesting.
But if you add more pressure, and things are going to burst.
Tennessee moved from their man-to-man zone defense into a 2-3 zone in an attempt to stifle the Cardinal outside attack.
Stifle is one way to put it. To say smother also wouldn’t be wrong.
With the score tied at 68, Tennessee would use a 17-2 run over a four minute stretch to give them a commanding 85-70 lead with only 5:16 to go. During the run, the Cardinals would fail to get out of their own way, committing turnovers and going cold from the arc to ultimately seal their fate.
“We were getting in the lane and drawing contact. That’s what happens when you play aggressive,” Louisville head coach Chris Mack said. “That’s who we want to be. The last ten minutes we weren’t as poised as we wanted to be.”
Louisville would attempt to make one last attempt but would be unable to get it lower than 11, which would be the margin of victory.
After shooting 41% (7-17) from the three point line in the first half, the Cardinals would only go 4-11 from the arc in the second half. They finished the game with 59 shots. 28 of them were from behind the arc. Take away that 17-2 run and the game would’ve been close from tip-off to buzzer.
With the win, Rick Barnes wins his 665th career game as a head coach, passing legendary coach John Wooden on the all-time wins list.
“What it means is I’ve been around for a long time,” Barnes said. “I was fortunate to get to know him. I’ve been blessed with great teams. The credit I get goes to my players and coaches.”
Volunteers get the winner of Kansas/Marquette Friday at 9 PM, while Louisville gets the loser of the second matchup at 7 PM.
Photo: Troy Taromina/USAToday