LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The signs were eerily similar for Louisville: Led for most of the game; made a couple of mistakes down the stretch; the game went into overtime.
On Friday against Marquette, it ended in a loss.
As Tuesday’s game against Michigan State entered the extra session, Chris Mack looked at his Cardinals players and reminded them of what happened four days earlier.
“I specifically talked about it,” Mack said. “I said, ‘How did you feel in the locker room at Barclays on Friday night? We’re in the same exact position. That’s up to you — 50-50 balls, not zoning out, not getting lost, not losing your man off the ball, forgetting to block out. Have no regrets.’ And I told them after the game, ‘You don’t have to be perfect.’ I try to give them 1,000 details when I’m sure a lot of them are swimming around their mind. They have to matter to you.
“In winning time, we executed those things.”
Louisville held off a last-minute surge from Michigan State in overtime, and the Cardinals knocked off the No. 9 Spartans 82-78.
Just six games into Mack’s career at Louisville, he already has a top-10 win.
“The Louisville faithful wanted a game like this, wanted some good news around here,” Mack said, “and I’m happy we could deliver.”
When Mack took over for interim head coach David Padgett last spring, there were limited expectations for the Cardinals this season. They had lost their top three scorers from last season and didn’t have any incoming freshman. They were picked 11th in the preseason ACC media poll. And especially since Mack already had signed a top-three recruiting class for next season, he was essentially given a grace period for this season.
But after hanging with top-10 Tennessee for most of last Wednesday’s game at the NIT Season Tip-Off, then taking Marquette to overtime on Friday, there was some optimism within the program. Mack stressed before Tuesday’s game that the Cardinals would have to get on Michigan State early, limit their transition points and make most of the 50-50 plays.
It worked. Louisville got out to an early lead, didn’t allow Michigan State to score a single fast-break point and forced 17 turnovers, which led to 18 points. The Cardinals also shot 41 free throws.
“And here’s the thing,” Mack said, “I don’t think certain players played very well for us. I don’t want to come out of this thinking or saying, ‘We played a perfect game,’ because we were far from perfect. We’re far from perfect. We have a lot of room to improve. Certain players have a lot of room to improve, and we expect them to.”
Ryan McMahon led the way for Louisville with 24 points, including four 3-pointers, and went 12-for-13 from the free throw line. McMahon hit seven free throws in overtime. Jordan Nwora (14 points), Dwayne Sutton (13 points) and Christen Cunningham (13 points) all finished in double figures.
Combine last week’s defeats with a number of close losses last season and the Cardinals players couldn’t help but have flashbacks down the stretch.
“Honestly, any time I looked up at the clock and it was a two-, three-point game with under four minutes on the clock, I kind of have that deja vu feeling,” McMahon said. “[I had a] bad taste in my mouth from last year and a couple games this year. [I was] doing anything I could to not let that happen again.”
The coach was impressed with the grittiness of his players.
“That’s who I’m most happy for, the guys in the locker room,” Mack said. “We didn’t let those negative thoughts creep in our mind. I’m sure they were there. But we were tough enough and showed the fortitude to get the job done against a really good team. … We found a way to win.
Louisville (4-2) still has to play road games at Seton Hall and Indiana, as well as a home showdown with Kentucky in late December, before the start of ACC play. But winning a close game against a top-10 opponent will help the Cardinals’ confidence — and newfound culture — moving forward.
“We talk about it all the time, letting them know, it’s a fresh start,” senior guard Khwan Fore said. “Especially with a new staff, new players coming in, just trying to show them it’s a fresh start. They can keep faith in us.”
As Mack walked off the court after Tuesday’s win, he threw an L up to the roaring crowd and celebrated with one of his daughters.
“That was a great feeling,” he said. “I got my family right behind the bench. That was for my daughter Hailee. We have dance contests at home. I thought I’d show her what I got in public. And that’s probably the last time I’ll do that.”