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As the University of Louisville Cardinals played in the third of the four-game Global Sports Shootout, the biggest challenges of the night appeared it would be how to keep the team motivated and its faithful fans enthused.
Tonight’s matchup was predicted to be as lopsided as they get. The USC Upstate Spartans started four sophomores and one freshman; none taller than 6’9, and only one player averaging double figures. The team is the preseason pick to finish last in their Big South Conference and is just 1-4 on the season. In contrast, UofL comes in with a 4-0 record and a #2 ranking in National polls. The seasoned Cards start all upper classmen and have four players averaging more than 11 points. Junior stud Jordan Nwora leads the way at 20.5 PPG. The Cards were favored to win tonight’s contest by 36, the largest point spread ever recorded in the long, distinguished history of University of Louisville basketball.
Boring right? It turned out anything but.
Louisville came into the game leading the country in shooting percentage, a blistering .566. But, for the first time this season the Cardinals did not start with the same fire that they have enjoyed in each of its other home games. It was instead the Spartans who started hot, making its two first two three-point shots and leading at the first media timeout, 8-4.
Louisville struggled to get into an offensive rhythm in the first half. Leading scorer Nwora had the ball often, and kept the Cards in the game, but the multi-faceted offense that has been the strength of Louisville team this season was missing. The Cards failed to use its size advantage with senior center Steven Enoch barely touching the ball. Senior guard Ryan McMahon sank a couple three-point baskets but also struggled with four turnovers. The Spartans three-point shooting stayed hot making six of twelve for the half, and sophomore guard Bryson Mozone nailed a three to cut their halftime deficit to six.
The second half started the way the first half ended. Louisville’s Enoch immediately turned the ball over and USC Upstate scored on another three by Mozone. Home fans started to get restless as it was beginning to look like this team that was not even supposed to compete with the Cards would not lie down and be trampled as expected. In fact, after another 6-0 run by the pesky Spartans, the Cardinals were losing for the first time in a second half all season.
That’s when senior Dwayne Sutton took over the ball game. He grabbed a big defensive rebound and scored on a made three-point basket. A couple Cardinal free throws and another three by McMahon pushed their lead to five and the threat was finally over. The KFC Yum was now rocking with the energy usually reserved for later in the highly contested conference season.
And there were other highlights for the Cardinal faithful to get excited about. With four minutes left in the first half, junior center/forward Malik Williams made his first appearance of the season after sitting out for a foot injury. Later in the second half, Louisville native David Johnson also made his first appearance. Johnson has been out since July 30 from a left shoulder surgery. Both players’ game entries brought loud cheers from the crowd and both scored in their first outing. Williams made a layup, and later a free-throw after a scary intentional foul. Johnson scored on a pair of athletic dunks.
The Cards were led again in scoring by Nwora who finished with a season-high 28. He also contributed nine rebounds. Sutton finished with nine points and 15 rebounds. Head coach Chris Mack praised Sutton for those rebounding efforts saying, “shows what heart, will, competitive character and a kick-ass attitude can do for a kid. He’s not six foot nine, he’s six foot five. A warrior.” McMahon also threw in 15 points, hitting five of eight of his three-point shots. And although starting somewhat cold, the Cards continued their shooting success of at least 50% for every game so far this season.
Next up for the Cardinals is the final game of this Shootout. They will face Akron at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday at home.