LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With 28 seconds to go in their ACC opener on the road against NC State, the Louisville men's basketball program found themselves in an interesting situation. Ahead by 14 points at halftime, a 30-11 run from the Wolfpack swung momentum of the game in the complete opposite direction.
Louisville was able to regroup in the final eight minutes of the game, fighting back to tie the game at 68 points a piece with 1:31 thanks to an incredibly long three-pointer form Noah Locke.
But, the Cardinals also found themselves in a bit of a predicament. On their next offensive possession following an empty trip up the floor from NC State, the Wolfpack defense was preventing Louisville from getting a clean look, and tipped it out-of-bounds with just two seconds remaining in the shot clock.
There aren't a ton of set plays you can run with just a couple seconds left to tinker with, especially in a crunch-time situation like Louisville was in. But, with a little help from former Butler head coach Brad Stevens, head coach Chris Mack had the perfect call.
"That play, we stole from Brad Stevens years ago. We actually call it 'Butler'," Mack said. "It's designed for end of the game type situations, got a few other options and a few other plays as well."
The play in question, called for a player to be posted on the ball side block, with a back screen set by the point guard. If the defenders switched, with a good pass from the inbounder from across the court, then the player should win the jump ball and have room for an open shot.
Mack didn't mean for Matt Cross to be the one to take the shot, but that is what the NC State defense allowed. Jarrod West set the screen, and Dre Davis delivered a pass that was on the money. Cross was slightly off-balance, and had a defender closing quickly, but the sophomore forward sank a go-ahead left corner three-pointer with just 26 seconds remaining.
"The play wasn't really for me, but there was two seconds on the clock, and there was never really time," Cross said after the game. "It was just a really good shot."
NC State wouldn't be able to respond on the other end of the court, with West chipping in a pair of free throws, icing the game and handing the Cardinals a 73-68 victory.
The Beverly, Mass. native finished with 13 points on 3-7 shooting - including 3-6 on three-point attempts - along with seven rebounds. But Cross had a much bigger impact on the game outside of his box score.
On the NC State possession sandwiched between Locke and Cross' clutch threes, Wolfpack guard Jericole Hellems' jumper was not only blocked by Cross, but he corralled the defensive rebound. In fact, in the final two-and-a-half minutes, Cross had two defensive rebounds and two blocks to go with his dagger three.
But Cross didn't wait until the final segment to make impactful plays. All game long, he had been making hustle plays on loose balls and on defense. Even the ESPN2 broadcast mad mention that Cross was making "winning plays" for the Cardinals.
"When we talk about game winning plays, this guy laying out on - not even 50/50 balls, it's more like 40/60, and looks like it was going to them," Mack said. "He's a tough kid. He is not afraid to run in there and rebound. He did it at the most opportune times, and so probably fitting (for him to hit the game-winner). That doesn't usually happen that it works out that way, but good for him."
This type of effort from Cross is not a new thing. All season long up to this point, he has been displaying this type of style night in, and night out. Ranging from playing with a grotesquely jammed finger against Southern, to routinely sticking his nose inside a mass of bodies to try and get a rebound or loss ball, he has established himself as a locker room standout.
"He's loved by his teammates. He gives incredible effort. He's just a tough kid. He wins. He prides himself on being a guy that plays like Larry Bird," Mack said. "Matt's a hell of a player. He makes those type of plays, and you can see why that guy was his idol with the way that Matt plays."
(Photo of Matt Cross: Gerry Broome via the Associated Press)
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