Wahoos play to near perfection in blowout at Louisville

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Kenny Payne has lived through a lot of disappointment this season in trying to get Louisville’s basketball program turned in the right direction. Saturday’s 69-52 loss to Virginia was a real bummer.

Even though the Cardinals were mired in a losing slump, they had at least performed well offensively, shooting the ball well (45 percent or better) against the upper echelon of the ACC. Payne knew that if Louisville was to pull an upset, or at least make visiting Virginia sweat, it was going to have to play its best basketball.

“I’m disappointed that we went over [the game plan] two, three, four days in a row and we came out and didn’t play the way we needed to play to start this game,” Payne said. “The way that we practiced, the way that we watched film, the way that we studied them, it didn’t translate to the game.”

Virginia (15-5, 6-3 ACC) is no quick study, and analyzing the Cavaliers and their somewhat unique style is vastly different than when you’re jaw-to-jaw with UVA’s “Pack-Line” defense, or when you’re constantly chasing the Wahoos’ deliberate offense over and over until your tongue is wagging.

When Tony Bennett’s team comes out of the blocks the way it did on Saturday, fuhget about it.

“The way we got started … we were right,” Bennett said.

Virginia essentially owns Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. It has been so finger-licking good to the Cavaliers over the years, UVA should use it as a neutral court for some of its big nonconference games.

Before the Cardinals could blink, Virginia was up 11-0, and once Ryan Dunn turned this one into his own personal highlight reel with alley-oop slam dunks, spoonfed from Reece Beekman, it was over early. Call in the dogs, piss on the fire, this hunt was over.

UVA blew it open with an 18-1 run and was up 32-8 with almost seven minutes in the first half.

By the break, it was 41-13. Thirteen. My goodness, who does that?

“[Virginia] ran its offense just about to perfection,” Payne complimented. “They were sharp. And the second that we broke down — if they ran the offense for 25 seconds and we broke down at the 12-seconds mark — they made us pay.”

Most of Louisville’s (6-14, 1-8) problems stemmed from its defensive inefficiencies, a common thread in its losses this season, but the Cardinals faithful had to be more disappointed in the offense. Louisville made only four field goals in the first half — it seemed Dunn had more dunks than that during that span — shot 20 percent and finished making 35.7, and only 3 of 11 from the 3-point arc, barely matching UVA sharpshooter Isaac McKneely’s total.

Not only was the Cavaliers’ offense solid, but the defense was outstanding, holding Mike James to a measly 8 points on a 1-for-8 shooting performance, 0 for 2 from the arc, where he had been shooting a blazing 59 percent over his previous six games.

Virginia scored 24 points off Louisville turnovers (for a complete game story, notebook and box score, see related story on this site) and outscored the Cardinals 30-18 in the paint.

“You can’t beat them when they play like that,” Payne said.

Payne’s analysis was spot-on. When Virginia is at the top of its game, it is awfully hard to beat.

Bennett and his staff have been working hard on turning weaknesses into strengths, adding Jordan Minor into the mix as a starter at the five spot, blending in freshman Blake Buchanan, who is blossoming before our eyes, working on coverages against opponents’ 3-point shooting, which led to some earlier losses. It’s all part of Bennett’s vast basketball knowledge, which seems to have righted the Good Ship Wahoo.

Another yardstick of a successful turnaround looms directly ahead when Notre Dame visits JPJ on Wednesday. We will see the difference in the Cavaliers that lost 76-54 in South Bend on Dec. 30 and the Cavaliers a month later.