No one is going to accuse No. 20 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Louisville of playing the prettiest contest of the season Thursday.
Ultimately though, it got the job done for the Cardinals.
In what ended up being a bit of a throwback game to the old Big East days of knockdown, drag-it-out basketball, Louisville defeated the Panthers 59-41 with an absolutely suffocating defensive perfomance that saw Jamie Dixon’s group shoot 28.6 percent from the field and turn it over 19 times.
Unsurprisingly, those are both season lows for a Panthers team that came into this one second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom and in the top 25 of both effective-field goal percentage and turnover rate.
The Cardinals were just bigger than the Panthers, using their length all over the floor to wall off everything that Pittsburgh wanted to do. Everywhere Pitt’s guards turned, there was another Louisville player there either in pick-and-roll coverage or just simply man-on-man. The Panthers backcourt combined to only make three shots on the night, which is the same number of times that usually sure-handed point guard James Robinson turned the ball over. When your entire backcourt’s output matches the turnovers that your lead ball-handler commits, you’re going to have a rough go.
It wasn’t necessarily all beautiful for the Cardinals, though. After really struggling offensively in a loss to Clemson on Sunday, it’s hard to say that Louisville’s scorers looked much better in this one. Leading scorers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis are now 10 for their past 50 field goal attempts over two games. Lee did score 18 in this one by getting to the foul line and converting, but those two will need to up their game in ACC play if the Cardinals want to contend near the top of the league.
On the plus side though for Louisville, it continues to get stronger performances nightly from center Chinanu Onuaku. He had his fourth straight double-double in this one, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. It’s worth noting his improvement offensively over the course of his career at Louisville, as he’s now a guy who can make a post move if the defense doesn’t double him and take him out of his comfort zone. Without Mangok Mathiang around, look for teams to start doing that more often. But regardless, Onuaku’s development makes it so that the Cardinals’ other players can struggle and potentially be bailed out either by his ability to finish on the block or by his ability to grab offensive rebounds.
It wasn’t necessarily the best game and it doesn’t quite answer a ton of the questions that Louisville has on its roster. Having said that though, it’s a result that the Cardinals will happily take, as any time you can beat another ranked opponent by 18 you’re clearly doing something right.
In this one, that thing they did right was defense, which has absolutely become a staple of the program under Rick Pitino regardless of the talent on his roster.