LOUISVILL — Buoyed by Wednesday’s victory over Georgia Tech to break a 10-game losing streak, Louisville basketball players went into Saturday’s game against Florida State eyeing their first back-to-back wins since mid-December.
Didn’t happen. But the Cardinals (2-20, 1-11) probably earned some respect from the 12,966 fans in the KFC Yum! Center with the determination and fight they showed in charging back from a 17-point deficit before falling to the Seminoles (8-16, 6-7) for the second time this season, 81-78.
Their gallant comeback certainly impressed veteran FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, who heaped praise on Louisville and coach Kenny Payne after a three-point attempt at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime didn’t fall. Hamilton, whose team led from wire-to-wire with the exception of two late ties, said the Cards had improved significantly in the two months since the Noles breezed 75-53 in Tallahassee.
“I loved the look in their eyes, the determination, the energy they gave during critical parts of the game,” Hamilton said. “I never felt they backed off with their effort. They fought hard, never gave up and I thought they did a great job of just sticking with their game plan and never losing their composure. And then they kept chipping away.”
Louisville trailed 45-36 at halftime, fell behind by 17 points early in the second half, and FSU still led by 15, 67-54, with 10 minutes remaining when the Cards shifted gears and turned what looked to be on the verge of another blowout loss into an exciting finish.
Behind slashing drives to the basket by El Ellis to either score or draw a foul, a pair of three-pointers by Jae’Lun Withers and timely baskets by Sydney Curry and JJ Traynor, UofL unleashed a 20-5 run and tied the score at 74-74 on Traynor’s dunk off a lob by Ellis, who had eight points and two assists during the surge.
In the final 10 minutes, Florida State managed only three field goals and missed nine of 10 shots during one stretch.
“They were so aggressive on defense I thought we lost our composure, took some really bad shots, didn’t have good ball movement,” Hamilton said. “We weren’t making good decisions with the ball because of how they were taking certain things away form us. And they were always contesting shots at the rim.”
After a 76-76 deadlock, the Noles eased ahead 80-76 on two free throws by Jaylen Warley with 25.6 seconds left. A basket by Curry on a handoff from Ellis at 0:15.8 then set up the frantic final seconds. Darin Green Jr. left the door open for the Cards by hitting just one of two free throws at 0:14.3.
On the ensuing possession, Ellis drove the lane and missed badly. In a scramble on the floor for the ball, Curry came up with it and fired a pass to Mike James, who was alone at the top of the key. But James’ trey bounced harmlessly off the back of the rim and FSU ended a three-game losing streak.
“El made a good play to get in the lane,” Payne said. “He was hoping to get fouled. Probably should have shot or found somebody earlier, but Mike had a wide open three or a good look at a three. I can’t be upset at that.”
However, Payne might have preferred JaeLyn Withers or Kamari Lands to take the final shot since they were 4-of-6 and 3-of-5 respectively from long distance while James had missed six of his previous seven trifectas.
It might not have been that close if the Cards hadn’t been so lax at the beginning of both periods. The Noles raced to a 20-11 lead to open the game and scored the first eight points of the second half for a 53-36 lead when the Cards failed to score on their first four possessions. Turnovers were also a problem, as usual, with FSU scoring 19 points off 11 of them.
Ellis led Louisville with 22 points and also had seven assists with just three turnovers. Lands scored a career-high 15 points and Withers added 14 points. All five FSU starters — two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior — scored in double figures.
“I love our fight,” Payne said. “I love what we did to get back into the game. I loved what they were saying in the huddle. I love how their eyes were captured on me when I was saying, ‘guys, we are only down 11 and we aren’t playing well. Just keep fighting.”
Now it gets even tougher. The Cards’ next five games and six of their last eight are against teams who are in the hunt for the ACC championship, starting at Pittsburgh (16-7, 9-3) Tuesday and then at Miami (18-5, 9-4) on Saturday.