December 04, 2015

Although Louisville wasted a comfortable lead and lost in its first major test, it had more to do with one sizzling player than the team completely breaking down on defense.

The No. 24 Cardinals still boast the nation's top defense despite their loss to third-ranked Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and will look to get back on track Saturday against unbeaten Grand Canyon at the KFC Yum! Center.

Louisville (5-1) led by as many as 13 in the first half Wednesday, but the Spartans got another clutch effort from Denzel Valentine to rally for a 71-67 win. Valentine scored 11 points in the final 5:06, including all six of his free throws in the last minute.

"We played well enough to win this game," said Trey Lewis, a graduate transfer who is second on the team with 13.8 points per game. "We played great in the first half."

The loss can't fully be pinned on the defense, which forced Michigan State into shooting 42.6 percent with 17 turnovers, but the Cardinals did allow the Spartans to haul in 17 offensive rebounds for a 40-30 overall edge on the glass.

A fair portion of the blame should go to another dreadful night from 3-point range. The Cardinals shot a season-worst 23.5 percent and are now 9 for 34 from downtown in their last two games.

Damion Lee, another graduate transfer, scored 23 points and Lewis added 21 in Louisville's first true road game. If not for the strong shooting of Lee and Lewis, who combined to go 15 of 28, things may have been a lot worse for the Cardinals.

"There was definitely a lot of yelling by (coach Rick Pitino)," said Lee, who is averaging a team-leading 18.3 points. "But this team, we're really good at taking the information coach gives us and making sure it doesn't happen again."

Louisville is tied with Morehead State with a nation-best 54.5 points allowed per game and is one of only six teams yielding an opposing field-goal percentage below 35.0. The Cardinals are also second to West Virginia (30.5) in average margin of victory at 27.3.

The largest factor in those numbers has been substandard competition in the early going. Wins over Samford, Hartford, North Florida, St. Francis (N.Y.) and Saint Louis preceded the loss to Michigan State, and the Cardinals are probably not expecting a grueling matchup against Grand Canyon (6-0) of the Western Athletic Conference.

The Antelopes have played well in the early going, however, and are seeking their second win over a team that went to last season's NCAA Tournament after a 63-51 win over defending Mid-Eastern Conference champion Hampton last weekend.

Coming off a 17-15 campaign in 2014-15, they kept their unbeaten run going by holding on for a 75-72 win over Central Michigan on Thursday. Gerard Martin and De'Andre Davis scored 17 points apiece and the Antelopes did enough at the free throw line in the closing minute before the Chippewas missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer.

The Antelopes made the jump to Division I in 2013 and don't have much of a history against ranked teams. Their only Top 25 opponent was No. 1 Kentucky, which crushed them 85-45 on Nov. 14, 2014, but coach and former Phoenix Suns star Dan Majerle is optimistic.

"We're just going to go in there and play our game, play as hard as we can and give it our best shot and whatever happens, happens," Majerle told Grand Canyon's official athletic website. "You never know."

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