(Photo of Chris Mack and Louisville Coaching Staff: Sam Upshaw Jr. via the Atlantic Coast Conference)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Heading into their Tuesday night matchup with Notre Dame, the Louisville men's basketball program was in a precarious position. They were coming off of a 45-point blowout, were playing their first home game in 22 days, and learned just before tipoff that they were going to be short one of their best players.
But even with faced with all those challenges to overcome, the Cardinals handled them in stride, as they pulled off a wire-to-wire 69-57 victory against the Fighting Irish to get back in the win column. Even more impressively, it did not require a Herculean effort from one player.
"I thought it was a team effort tonight to have five players in double figures. Two guys get double-digit rebounds," head coach Chris Mack said after the game. "The guys really stepped up for us to shoot the ball better than Notre Dame, who's one of the most proficient teams on offense in the country."
Carlik Jones led with a game-high 18 points, and Jae'Lyn Withers finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. Samuell Williamson, Dre Davis and Quinn Slazinski also crossed the double-digit threshold with 12, 11 and 10, respectively, as the team as a whole shot 42.2% from the field.
However, as efficient as Louisville was on the offensive side of things, Mack was more pleased with their defensive efforts. Facing a Notre Dame squad that was shooting 46.9% from the field heading into their game, the Cardinals held the Irish to just 36.8% from the field. Leading scorer Nate Laszewski, who was averaging 14.9 points, was held to just two. Mack also praised Jones for his defensive efforts on Prentiss Hubb.
But what stood out to Mack the most was Louisville's rebounding efforts. Despite facing a team who is the 14-tallest team in Division I at an average of 78.6 inches, the Cardinals out-rebounded the Irish 45-30, and 14-5 on offensive boards.
"We felt like no matter whether they were playing zone, or if they end up playing two-three, one-three-one, box and one, we had to make opportunities off second shots," Mack said. "We did it, probably a lot better in the first half than the second, but we had 14 offensive rebounds and that I think sealed the deal."
Many times this year, Louisville had made a habit of allowing their opponent to make a run right after they had just gone one one, thus not allowing themselves to put distance between them. Against Notre Dame, they came firing right out of the gates, and seldom let the Irish come within striking distance. Mack is hopeful that this is a sign of maturity in his team.
"I know that at one point, there was a stretch where neither team was scoring, and we were getting really fatigued," he said. "Then, you start to add in that Mike [Brey] was changing defenses and now, not only do we have to execute, you got to recognize what they're in to figure out what we're running. And so I thought it was great that our defense held during that time when we were tired."
Even when Notre Dame looked like they could threaten to take the lead late in the game, Louisville responded. After the Irish cut it to five points and Davis missed a three-pointer, Williamson grabbed a crucial offensive board, kicked it out to Jones, who then drained a three himself. It sparked a 13-6 run by the Cards to end the game and seal the deal.
"Huge offensive rebound. Great presence of mind by Sam," Mack said. "Sometimes you get an offensive rebound and you feel like you've earned it so you just go up in traffic sometimes and the ball doesn't bounce in. So, he had the presence of mind to find Carlik who's calling for it. Dagger shot. When a team's trying to come back, come back from double digits, and they get it to five and then you quickly hit one like that off an offensive rebound, that can take the wind out of your sails. And the good thing was we kept the foot on the gas pedal after that play.
Mack was even impressed with the way Malik Williams played as well. Making his first start of the season in the wake of David Johnson being out, he went on to score six points, haul in 10 rebounds, and provide an excellent inside defensive presence alongside Withers.
“I thought (Malik's) mobility got a lot better from Saturday to Tuesday. We're going to it need to jump up even more coming up this Saturday (vs. Duke)," he said. "Every day that goes by every practice he gets under his belt, I think the more confidence he gets the better conditioning he gets, and the better timing he gets. So, obviously the whole team played so much better today than we did on Saturday, but I thought Malik was a lot better as well.”
Louisville is set to head back on the road for a rematch with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 27. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. EST on ESPN.
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