PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — In retrospect, perhaps there was no way they could have been prepared for this. The speed. The athleticism. The commitment to defense.
By TEREZ PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Oh yes, No. 13 Missouri surely knew No. 2 Louisville had all these traits well before its Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal game on Friday night, but in basketball, there’s a difference between telling a still-growing team what to expect, and experiencing it, especially when said team has less than 24 hours to prepare.
So by the time the midway point of the second half rolled around — with Louisville pushing the pace and leading comfortably by double digits — the Tigers’ fatal flaws in what turned out to be a 84-61 loss at Imperial Arena were already apparent.
“I honestly think this is what we needed, because it shows we aren’t as good as we think we are,” said senior center Alex Oriakhi. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Louisville, which is coached by legendary Rick Pitino, used its trademark press defense to force 23 Missouri turnovers. And though the Tigers fared fairly well from the field (46 percent), that wasn’t enough to overcome the turnovers, middling free-throw shooting (10 of 19) or their defensive breakdowns, as Louisville repeatedly attacked the rim and drained more than a few open three-pointers.
“When you give up 31 points off turnovers, you hurt you chances of winning a basketball game,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith. “Our ball security has to be so much better.”
Some of this surely had to do with the fact the Tigers didn't find out they would play Louisville until late Thursday night, thanks to a 9 p.m. start in the Cardinals' 51-46 win over Northern Iowa.
But the truth is, it sure didn’t take long for the Cardinals, 5-0, to show the Tigers what kind of game this would be. Louisville, which was coming off a dreadful shooting performance against Northern Iowa, pushed the pace from the get-go, especially once junior Phil Pressey picked up his second foul only 4½ minutes into the game.
That sent the Tigers’ best player (and only true point guard) to the bench, and Louisville proceeded to force steals on three of Missouri’s next four possessions in taking a 10-6 lead. With the Tigers’ ball handling lacking, Haith had no choice but to send Pressey back into the game.
Pressey played most of the half despite the foul trouble, and Haith used a zone defense to protect him. Although Louisville never turned down the pressure and ended up forcing 14 turnovers in the half, the Tigers managed to stay in the game.
Missouri, which trailed 22-12 at one point, went on a 15-7 run that cut the deficit to 29-27 before Louisville closed the half with a 10-4 spurt and took a 39-31 lead into the break.
It was only a precursor of things to come. Missouri opened the second half with four straight points, but Louisville went on an 11-0 run, aided by a stretch that began when the Cardinals made a three-pointer and stole a careless inbounds pass by Laurence Bowers, who heaved the ball downcourt and into the waiting arms of a Louisville defender.
“That’s not who we are, that’s not how we play,” Haith said. “Those plays give teams energy when you make a bonehead play like that.”
Chane Behanan followed with a basket and was fouled on the play, but the Cardinals rebounded his ensuing missed free throw and hit a three-pointer, which made it 50-35.
Louisville continued its breakneck pace, and the Tigers never got closer than 10 the rest of the way. The Cardinals were outrebounded by the Tigers 37-32, but made up for it with its swarming defense and by shooting 65 percent in the second half.
The Cardinals advance to Saturday's championship game at 8:30 against No. 5 Duke.
Oriakhi and Pressey each scored a team-high 15 points for Missouri, which dropped to 4-1 and fell into the consolation bracket, where it will face Virginia Commonwealth in the third-place game at 6 tonight.
“I take full responsibility for the turnovers,” said Pressey, who had seven assists but a career-high eight turnovers. “Us guards, we have to take care of the ball. It was a learning experience.”
That’s what these tournaments are for, after all. And the Tigers will get a chance to show what they’ve learned tonight against a VCU team that presses and plays defense in a manner similar to Louisville.
“They’re very similar in a lot of ways,” Haith said. “We’ve got to find a way to make plays, trust one another. . . . I think VCU will come after us a little bit more.”