Head coach Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals have probably had just about enough of coach Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans.
The Green and White eliminated the Cardinals in the Elite Eight in last season”s NCAA tournament, and they handed Louisville another loss Wednesday in the Big 10/ACC Challenge, 71-67. Not even a commanding, double-digit Louisville lead in the first half was enough to overcome a raucous Breslin Center crowd or superstar Denzel Valentine.
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Valentine flashed his versatile game again this season and finished with 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds and carried the Michigan State offense alongside Bryn Forbes. Forbes scored 20 and drilled five critical three-pointers as the Spartans gradually came back in the second half.
The Louisville offense was also powered by a two-man attack. Damion Lee scored 23 points, while Trey Lewis added 21 and six rebounds from the backcourt.
Despite the win, the game could not have started much worse for the Spartans. They missed their first eight field-goal attempts and turned it over four times in the opening eight minutes. Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press described the issues as Michigan State fell behind, 12-3:
Flustered would be an understatement right now. Cards go full press, Valentine turns it over for a layup rather than take TO. 12-3. MSU 0 FG
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The struggles continued as Louisville built an 18-5 lead, as Kyle Austin of MLive.com acknowledged:
Exponentially the worst Michigan State has looked this season. 1-for-11, 7 turnovers in 10 minutes
Michigan State climbed back into the game throughout the first half and even trimmed the deficit to four points, but Eric Crawford of WDRB Louisville pointed to the Cardinals” greatest advantage:
Points of turnovers: #Louisville 14, Michigan State 0.
Even with the early turnovers and the struggles from the field, Michigan State clawed to within 32-29 at the half. Valentine hit a falling runner in the lane to end the first 20 minutes, and Chris Vannini of CoachingSearch.com praised the Spartans” resiliency:
Brutal half for MSU… and they trail by 3.It’s been that kind of team this year.
The Spartans had the momentum heading into the locker rooms, but Louisville quickly seized it back in the opening minutes of the second half. The Cardinals” pressure defense forced more turnovers, and Lee made Michigan State pay, per Jeff Greer of the Courier-Journal:
Big steal and thunderdunk from Damion Lee. Gave his teammates a snarl. Did it again after the foul. Bench loving every second of it.
Forbes hit back-to-back baskets and helped the Spartans cut the deficit to 40-36, and Rexrode acknowledged the home team”s one major advantage:
Spartans getting back into this thing, offensive glass a primary method. Goins has 11 boards. MSU ball, down 40-36. But Lewis/Lee — wow.
Louisville took a 45-41 lead into the under-12-minute timeout, but big man Chinanu Onuaku picked up his fourth foul and put the Cardinals in a difficult position down low. Mark Blankenbaker of TheCrunchZone.com offered a potential solution:
Anas Mahmoud was on fire until he fatigued. I say go with him for 3, go with Ray for 3, and come back to Nanu. See what happens
That didn”t work, as the Spartans tied the game with 10 minutes remaining. Greer noted Pitino didn”t have much choice:
Pitino can't wait any longer. Onuaku ready to come back with four fouls and the game tied — and the Breslin Center jumping.
Foul trouble or not, Louisville had an answer for every Michigan State run in the middle portion of the second half. Lewis drilled a three to open up a 53-50 advantage, and Austin said he was one of two problems for the Spartans:
Damion Lee and Trey Lewis with 34 points combined. They've seemed to answer every big Michigan State shot
Michigan State finally seized the lead for the first time all game when Kenny Goins hit a jumper with less than seven minutes left. However, Lee answered on the very next possession with an and-1, and the back-and-forth stage was set for the last few minutes. Greer commented on Lee”s performance:
Damion Lee and-one in traffic. Kid is playing out of his mind this half. Up to 21 points.
However, the Spartans finally established some lasting momentum when Valentine drilled a wide-open three, and the defense converted a turnover into a Deyonta Davis dunk. Just like that, it was 63-58 Spartans with less than four minutes remaining, and Crawford pointed to the lackluster defense from Louisville during the game”s most important stretch:
Another Pitino timeout, and the #Louisville’s defense has disappeared. MSU has made six straight shots, 4 of them threes.
The defense improved in crunch time, but Michigan State still held a 65-60 lead with less than a minute left. The Spartans were in control, but they committed a crucial mistake when they fouled Lewis on a three-pointer. The guard hit all three free throws and brought his team back to 65-63.
Michigan State answered with two of its own on the charity stripe, but Anas Mahmoud scored in the lane to once again make it a two-point deficit at 67-65.
The Cardinals continued to put the pressure on the Spartans when Lewis scored. But it was still 69-67 Michigan State with five seconds remaining, and Valentine found himself on the line once again. As if there were any doubt, he drilled both and put the game out of reach to notch one in the win column for the Big Ten as the Spartans defended home court.
Louisville gets a scheduling break before its Dec. 26 showdown against Kentucky following Wednesday”s loss. The Cardinals face Grand Canyon, Eastern Michigan, Kennesaw State, Western Kentucky, UMKC and Utah Valley in their upcoming games. In fact, the Spartans and Wildcats represent the only truly challenging opponents for Louisville before the ACC schedule begins.
The ACC is a difficult conference, but the Cardinals could use a marquee win out of league for their tournament resume. Wednesday”s loss puts all the pressure on that Kentucky contest.
As for Michigan State, it always challenges itself out of conference. The Spartans already beat Kansas, Boston College and Providence and still have a showdown with Florida before the Big Ten starts.
Izzo”s squad also has a couple of winnable contests against Binghamton and Maryland-Eastern Shore before that showdown with the Gators and should have plenty of momentum heading into the conference season.
Valentine has been arguably the best college basketball player in the country this side of Ben Simmons, and he led his team to another early marquee victory. Izzo reflected on his superstar, per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com: “At winning time, he rose up and that”s what makes him special.”
As for Louisville, that is exactly what it didn’t want to happen.
Assistant coach Ralph Willard discussed the gameplan, per the Associated Press: “The one guy we didn”t want to make plays was Valentine. We wanted somebody else to beat us, going into the game, and unfortunately we gave him an opportunity to win the basketball game. And as a lot of great players do, he did it. He came through and made plays for them.”
Valentine himself talked about the win, per the Associated Press: “To pull out a win like this was huge. We weren”t in the best of shape. It was like a one-day prep, but you can”t make excuses like that. You just get the job done.”
It was the first loss of the season for the Cardinals, but they controlled the majority of the game until a disappointing finish. Lewis commented on the loss, per Greer: “It”s heartbreaking. This hurts. But, as a young team, you”re going to go through experiences like this, and it”s good to go through it early.”
If experiences like this make Louisville stronger in March, the early heartbreak will be well worth it.