PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas– Louisville’s grueling 68-62 overtime victory against Old Dominion in the opening round of Battle For Atlantis ended close to 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning and the Cardinal players finally got out of the locker room at the Atlantis Resort’s Imperial Ballroom an hour later.
But, even though the Cardinals had a quick 11-hour turnaround before they played Wichita State in a 2:30 p.m. semi-final, Rick Pitino and his players did not go directly to bed. Instead, he conducted an impromptu clinic, teaching his team a sticky matchup zone that shocked the Shockers, 62-52, and helped the Cardinals (5-0) advance to the finals against 20th-ranked Baylor (5-0) Friday at 3:30 p.m.
“To give you an idea of how difficult this was, Wichita State is an outstanding team that was playing on all cylinders against LSU,” Pitino said. “Coaches got to bed at 3:30; players around 3:15. We decided that we had to play the same type of match up zone we played against them in the (2013 NCAA tournament) semi-finals (a game Louisville won, 72-68, on the way to a national championship). And we had 55 minutes to teach it because we didn’t put it in at all in practice. To show how much they want to win, – for them to grasp that in 55 minutes, use it against a terrific team and cause some confusion, I’m very proud of them.
“We hadn’t played any zone the whole year. We knew Gregg Marshall is a great preparation coach. We knew we couldn’t play them man to man. With our scholarship limitations, we’re a little short, especially with King Fu (6-10 starting center Maangok) Mathiang playing five-six minutes a game.
That’s why Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach. He still has the magic touch in the situations like this.
The 10th-ranked Cardinals limited Wichita State (5-1), which was playing in February form, to just 17 points in the first half and limited the Shockers to 31.6 percent shooting for the game. They outrebounded Wichita State, 46-33, and held 6-8 sophomore forward Markis McDuffie, a first team pre-season All Missouri Valley selection, to just two field goals.
“Forget the lack of sleep, I am more impressed with putting in the match up zone in 55 minutes and our guys playing it well,” Pitino said. “(Louisville guard) Donovan Mitchell is from Connecticut. He’s smart enough to figure it out. I’m from Queens. I couldn’t do it. We played a completely different style. Sometimes in a tournament, you go against teams that different styles. Old Dominion reminded me of Virginia from our league. Wichita was as tough a team as you will find – tough guys. They shoot it well and we got confused a little bit, by not switching out properly, but again we knew there was going to be some mistakes because we just put it in.
“We are trying to win Battle 4 Atlantis here and you got to adjust – and most importantly, 4 years ago, we didn’t win here. We lost to Duke in the finals so we were starving to get to this final right now.”
By all rights, the Cardinals should have struggled with their legs, much like Michigan State did in their 73-58 semifinal loss to Baylor after a similar short turnaround. But even though Louisville shot just 37 percent, the Cardinals played with consistent energy at both ends of the court throughout the game.
Mitchell, who was the hero of the Old Dominion game when he scored all 15 of his points in the second half and overtime, scored 14 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had five assists against the Shockers. Guard Quentin Snider also had 14 points and 6-9 forward Ray Spalding came off the bench to grab nine rebounds and play smothering defense as the Cardinals got back into their comfort zone, frenetically pushing the ball up the court after made and missed baskets. “The thing that I like about our team right now is they are flexible– they can play fast,” Pitino said. “They get a little frustrated when they don’t play fast.”
McDuffie and center Shaquille Morris each scored 10 points for the Shockers, who had won their first five games by an average of 36.4 points but got an unexpected reality check. “We saw a different defense that we have been seeing” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall admitted. “We didn’t attack it very well. We didn’t get the ball inside enough. We missed tons of free throws. We came back and got it to under 10 in the second half– and they got it back to 16. I thought we played much better in the second half but the problem was we didn’t execute very well in the first half. When you only score 17 points, it’s hard to win.”
This was Pitino’s 750th career victory.
“He has a lot of them and two of them are against me,” Marshall said. “Both of them hurt. He is a very good coach and we will see a lot of the same Friday. We have to summon what we have been taught and execute better against whatever Michigan State throws at us in the third place game. We have to compete a little harder and smarter.”