On day two of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, the second ranked University of Louisville basketball Cardinals (5-0) made a few discoveries, not the least of which was the shooting of Luke Hancock. The Cards rode Hancock and their blistering defense to defeat #13 Missouri Tigers 84-61. The win sets up the most hoped for matchup of the tournament: Louisville vs. Duke.
In the first half, fans got hints that this would be a different Cardinal team than the one that allowed Northern Iowa to get too close to them the previous night. As the first ranked team the Cards have faced all season, this game had more at stake. In the locker room during the pregame speech, coach Rick Pitino issued a challenge. He noticed the team had no swagger. After the game, his assessment of the team changed. This is the game he said they got their swagger.
It definitely became the game where Luke Hancock found his groove and his shot. All his teammates say that Hancock makes all the shots in practice and that he’s their best shooter. Before Friday night, that opinion hadn’t made it to the stat sheet. Against the Tigers, scorers pencils stayed busy all night.
As a transfer from George Mason, Coach Pitino and the fans had high expectations. They wanted games like this: 19 points including 5 of 7 from beyond the three-point arc. Cardinal coaches said the slump was all in his head and once he got out of the KFC Yum! Center, he could knock down the shots. Against Northern Iowa earlier in the tournament it looked like more of the same.
Friday night it clicked. Hancock lead all Cardinals in scoring which is not an easy task when Russ Smith is on the floor. Smith, Louisville’s leading scorer all season, finished with 18 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals and 3 assists. All-American point guard Peyton Siva bounced back from a subpar game to score 13 points to go along with 6 assists and 3 rebounds.
Missouri’s game plan mirrored all other Cardinal opponents. That is, they tried to take the talented frontcourt out of the game challenging Louisville to beat them from the perimeter. Having Hancock pick this game to get hot threw a monkey wrench into the Tiger plans.
The other surprise came on defense. Game scouts no doubt talk about the Cards press and their man-to-man defense because no one denies it’s formidable. The Tigers didn’t look like they expected the press to fall back into the zone like it did. By playing that, UofL took away the inside game and forced Missouri’s talented point guard Phil Pressey into fatigue mistakes. He ended the game with 8 turnovers. The competitive first half gave way to a wave of Cardinal dominance in the second because of how tired the Tigers got after dealing with that press all game.
Statistically, Gorgui Dieng didn’t have his best game, but the things he can do sometimes don’t show on the sheets. His inside force makes people change their shot or decide not to drive it into the paint at all because he is there.
Louisville put together its best game of the season at the right time. Saturday night at the Atlantis resort, the Cards go heads up with the Duke Blue Devils in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. After this game, we should know just how good this Cardinal team is.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton