Louisville coach Rick Pitino will forthrightly admit that his teams play scrappy defense. They did throughout his tenure at Providence, Kentucky, and now up to his ninth season at Louisville.
As Pitino's Cardinals surrendered a titanic-sized first-half lead and went on to lose 92-84 to No. 4 Villanova Monday night, the same scrappiness that propelled his ascent to coaching greatness translated into a negative.
Hand slaps, bumps, and holds are the norm—but it's not often that those tic-tack touches get called by referees. Not 66 times in one game, the amount of fouls shared by Villanova and Louisville.
“I thought most of our fouls weren't fouls and most of theirs were,” Pitino said, laughing. “I just thought in some situations, we did a really good job and played really good defense but just got our hands in the wrong place.”
Monday night's officiating crew consisted of John Cahill, Karl Hess, and Michael Stephens, a trio which sent the Cardinals and Wildcats to the free throw line 94 times. That's more than 30 attempts greater than what Louisville and Kentucky shot in the Bluegrass State's gritty rivalry meeting on Jan. 4.
Villanova coach Jay Wright was thrown off by the officiating in the first half, receiving a technical foul, as was Pitino, whose clipboard managed to find its way onto the court in the middle of the second half.
The calls, however, ended up fairly equal. Both teams were called for 33 fouls, and the Wildcats visited the free throw line only four more times than the Cardinals, leading Pitino to cast blame for Louisville's fifth loss of the season away from a veteran officiating crew.
“I think they are a good crew and I don't think that is the reason. I can't blame the officiating crew,” Pitino said. “It was an old-fashioned Big East game.”
Although the referees had no problem staying even, their quick whistles shot down any chance of a Louisville victory once Villanova began to run back from 17 points down in the first half.
The Cardinals turned the visiting Wildcats over more times in the first half (17) than Villanova averages per game (13) using man-to-man presses off made baskets. And surrounded by a sea of white at Freedom Hall, the lead built to double digits.
With it, Wright said his team had to find a way to match Louisville's intensity.
“We were just back on our heels,” he said. “We're turning it over, they're coming at us. It was one of the craziest first halves I've ever seen.”
When the fouls piled up, Louisville's rhythm slowed down, and the Wildcats found their niche thanks to senior guard Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds scored 30 of his 36 points in the second half, including Villanova's final 16 points.
Looking back, Louisville sophomore Samardo Samuels said the Cardinals should have stymied the run that ended with Villanova in the lead.
“There's a lot of things we could have done better—I could have done better,” Samuels said.
That starts with shooting, where Villanova finished 49.0 percent to Louisville's 31.7 percent.
No made bucket, no press. No press, no turnovers. No turnovers, no upset.
At least that was Wright's method of operation.
“When you turn the ball over, you can't get into your defense,” Wright said. “So in the second half when we started making some shots, we got to get into our defense and create some turnovers.”
The whistles—although fair, even, and indiscriminating—came all too often for a Louisville team that thrives on pace and opponents' fatigue.
And for a full-court attack that coudn't exist throughout a Villanova comeback.
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