Despite bizarre finish, Louisville hangs on

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Overachievement has been a group effort this season at Louisville.

There have been contributions from everyone, and I do mean everyone. That includes a male cheerleader who got into the act Sunday against No. 6 Pittsburgh.

With near-infamous results.

When Kyle Kuric got loose for a late dunk that made the score 62-57, cheerleader Jordan Alcazar was so thrilled that he bounded onto the court, grabbed the basketball and threw it toward the ceiling of a delirious KFC Yum! Center.

Just one problem: there was still half a second to play in overtime, so that was a technical foul on Alcazar for imitating Steve Bartman. After making the two technical free throws, Pitt had a final heave from near midcourt at a tie.

It barely missed, Louisville won 62-59, and Alcazar’s life was spared.

The first comment from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino after the game: “All good things have to come to an end, and the male cheerleader has come to an end.”

One good thing that won’t end anytime soon is this remarkable Louisville season. Neither low expectations nor brutal conference competition nor a plague of injuries nor a trespassing cheerleader has derailed the surprising 22-7 Cardinals, who are close to clinching a double-bye in the Lollapalooza of a Big East tournament.

Pitino himself said he thought this would be “a .500 team,” and that was before Louisville began living in the training room. Ten players have missed at least one game with an injury, and only two (Peyton Siva and Chris Smith) have answered the bell all 29 times.

The only returning starter from last season, forward Jared Swopshire, has missed all season with a groin injury that required surgery. Center Gorgui Dieng missed six games with a concussion. Forward Rakeem Buckles has missed 13 games with a broken finger, then sprained his knee Sunday against Pitt.

Louisville has played through it all, and won through it all. In a league where two-game losing streaks can happen to the best of teams, it hasn’t happened to the cohesive Cardinals all season.

Nobody is touting a single Louisville player for first-team all-Big East honors. Nobody is averaging 15 points or playing more than 30 minutes per game. But by sheer collective will, they’re 11-5 and tied for third in America’s toughest league.

“No ego, no anything,” explained senior guard and leading scorer Preston Knowles. “I think it starts from the head down. The coaches are doing a great job getting us prepared, I’m doing a great job of leading this team, and everyone is buying in.”

Part of Knowles’ leadership was telling his teammates earlier in the year that he didn’t want to see them scrutinizing the stat sheet in the locker room after the game. The only stat he wanted anyone focusing on was the team record.

Knowles embodied that philosophy Sunday. His biggest play in overtime was nowhere to be found on the stat sheet.

Sixty-five seconds into a scoreless overtime, Knowles positioned himself on the right wing, caught Kuric’s eye and mouthed, “Fade.” Kuric raised his eyebrows in silent acknowledgement.

This was a play Knowles himself devised earlier this season, to be used specifically when Kuric -- his roommate on the road -- is in the game at the power forward spot. And Kuric was at that point.

In fact, Kuric spent most of the afternoon playing the 4 -- a daunting assignment for a 6-foot-4 wing player against a rugged Pitt team that ranks second in the nation in rebounding margin. But Kuric battled his way to seven rebounds, an effort Pitino described as “awesome,” and exploited the mismatch at the offensive end on this key possession.

Knowles positioned himself in front of Kuric’s defender to set a screen on the wing. Kuric popped free and took a pass from Siva. He drained the open 3-point shot for a 59-56 lead, and the Cardinals controlled the game the rest of the way.

“That’s why I love Kyle Kuric playing the 4,” Knowles chirped.

Kuric himself is less fond of it in games like this, when he’s giving away several inches and plenty of pounds. But that’s been what Louisville has thrived on this season -- someone stepping up to do whatever it takes.

“You’ve just got to come up with the ball,” Kuric said.

The Cards came up with the ball just often enough Sunday. They battled the Panthers to a near-draw on the boards (39 for Pitt, 38 for Louisville). They gouged out 16 turnovers while committing only nine. And they defended tenaciously enough to win despite shooting just 34 percent themselves, 27 percent from the 3-point line.

Louisville’s matchup zone defense will be difficult to decipher for every March opponent. It’s been especially sticky in the Cardinals’ past three games.

Connecticut is a 47 percent 2-point shooting team, but shot 36 percent from that range in the Yum! Center. Rutgers shoots 44 percent from the floor, but made just 29 percent of its shots against Louisville at home. And Pitt was held six percentage points beneath its season average in this game.

“We’re trying to get totally into the mentality of thinking defense every single time down the floor,” Pitino said.

Despite that defense, Pitt’s Brad Wanamaker nearly willed the Panthers to victory. The most valuable Panther (13 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals) made two clutch jump shots in the final minute to force overtime.

“I thought hands down he was their best player,” Knowles said. “[Ashton] Gibbs gets the publicity, but he makes them go.”

But Wanamaker made a curious decision at the end of OT that helped swing the game to Louisville once and for all. Trailing by three in the final seconds, he rose for a 3 at the top of the key but inexplicably passed it inside to Gilbert Brown, who blew a layup with seven seconds left.

“We can’t get a better look than that,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.

Simple arithmetic suggests that Pitt could have gotten a whole lot better look than that. But that wasn’t the only eyebrow-raising commentary from the Panthers after this game.

There was this from Ashton Gibbs’ Twitter feed: “No way we shouldve lost to them bums smh [shaking my head].”

Interesting take, considering the Panthers didn’t lead them bums at any point over the final 38 minutes of play. And they only had a chance for double OT because of a near-epic cheerleader trespassing.

Pitino called Alcazar about an hour after the game and, with magnanimity afforded by victory, told him not to worry about his brush with infamy.

It’s been a cast-of-thousands success story for Louisville this season -- but they’ll decline any additional help from the cheerleaders from now on.