NEW ORLEANS – On one side of the Louisville locker room, Russ Smith stood as tall as his lithe 6-foot frame would let him.
Across the room, Chane Behanan towered over the heard of reporters inquiring about the Cardinals’ 69-61 loss to Kentucky in one of the Final Four national semifinals. Both men were standing for the entire 30 minutes their locker room was open, the physical effects of the last 40 fast and intense minutes of basketball not forcing them to their chairs, like it did to their in-state rivals just down the hall.
Conditioning was not an issue for them, or their teammates.
The young men dressed in their Infrared uniforms are used to playing Rick Pitino’s chaotic press on defense. The Cardinals lived and died off it this year.
On Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in front of 73,361, most of them rabid Kentuckians, the press kept Louisville alive but in the end, it ultimately killed its season.
“We were more aggressive, and we were trying to wear ‘em out, wear ‘em out and we kinda did,” Louisville freshman Wayne Blackshear said. “We just came up short.”
Among the lasting images from Dream Game 2 will be Kentucky freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist throwing down three vicious dunks in the final 65 seconds.
What won’t be shown on highlight clips, however, is that all three dunks were the byproduct of the Wildcats finally figuring out how to break the Cardinals’ full-court press – even if it took them almost 37 minutes to do so.
With Louisville in desperation mode after tying the game at 49 with 9:12 left in the second half, only to watch its comeback efforts erased by an 11-2 run by Kentucky, the Cards started to scramble.
They chased guards and gambled on passes. And after almost an entire game of watching those neon red uniforms fly around the court, Kentucky found out a few simple passes was all it needed to have a two-on-one with national player of the year Anthony Davis waiting to throw down another dunk.
That’s how Louisville’s season died.
“It weared us out a little bit,” Kentucky guard Doron Lamb said. “They got a nice little scramble press. The main thing was just breaking their press. We do that, we get the easy baskets.”
Smith gauged the Wildcats’ fatigue based not if they were holding their shorts, but by how many free throws they hit – or didn’t hit, for that matter.
Kentucky made just 11 of 20 free throws, its lowest percentage of the season.
The more Louisville made Kentucky run, the less legs the Wildcats had. And it showed.
Behanan knew Kentucky was getting tired when it was called for two offensive fouls throughout the night.
“They’d just run right into you,” he said.
Even though Kentucky saw Louisville’s press earlier this season, it still looked baffled by it at times, such as when John Calipari was forced to call a 30-second time out less than 90 seconds into the second half because the Wildcats couldn’t in-bound the ball.
What worked for the Cardinals on Saturday is what worked for them all season.
“Our pressure defense and wearing them out, [them] getting tired, I felt it,” Smith said. “They were on the free-throw line, and they were missing free throws and that’s how we kept getting back into the game.
“We just did not make the chippy plays, the lay ups, the little deflections.”
Kentucky missed three of four free throws during a Louisville run early in the second half. If Davis made both his with 15:37 left, the Wildcats would’ve gone up by 13. Three minutes later, Terrence Jones missed two and an opportunity to put Kentucky up by 10.
Kentucky couldn’t shut the door on Louisville, which fought back with a 17-4 run that was capped by Peyton Siva hitting a 3 to tie the game at 49.
That’s how Louisville’s season was kept alive.
On Saturday, Behanan said the pillars of Louisville’s press were simple: make Kentucky pick up its dribble, make it throw lob passes and get a lot of steals.
On one play with 11:23 left in the game, the Cards executed its press to perfection. Center Gorgui Dieng intercepted a pass lobbed by Lamb and passed it to Behanan, who missed a jump shot that was stuffed back by Blackshear.
Two of Pitino’s three keys to winning Saturday night revolved around the press.
One was taking Kentucky out of its transition offense and the second was making sure the Cardinals scored, so they could set up their press.
“We didn’t do accomplish that one,” Pitino said.
The first half didn’t give Louisville many opportunities to press, having shot 37.5 percent. It didn’t shoot much better in the second half, but its baskets came in a spurt, allowing them to put together the comeback.
“I think we bailed them out a lot of times,” Blackshear said. “Every time we’d make that run and we needed that one stop, I think we bailed them out a lot of times.
“I think we just needed to play more solid defense and we would’ve been right there.”