One of the most improbable and unthinkable NCAA runs by a Rick Pitino-coached team came to an abrupt end Sunday afternoon when Louisville quite literally shot themselves out of a potential third Final Four in the past four seasons.
The Cards jumped out to an impressive 40-32 lead over Michigan State at halftime, but as he tends to do, Spartans coach Tom Izzo made brilliant halftime adjustments, and Louisville simply could not counter.
After shooting 53% in the first half on 17-32 shooting, Louisville made just six field goals the remainder of the game. Shots were rushed, the team reverted to one-on-one offense, and just as the case was most of the regular season, Louisville could not hit an outside shot to save their life. Worse may have been the free throw shooting from Louisville, missing several key opportunities at the line.
Michigan State finished the game shooting 14 of 32 after halftime, shot 43% for the game (39% from three), and despite being a disastrous free-throw shooting team (just 62.8% on the season), they made 15 of their 20 attempts from the charity stripe. They also displayed terrific ball movement, producing 20 assists on 26 made baskets. Louisville, in contrast, had just 10 on 23 made baskets.
It was an unfortunate ending for a Louisville team who overachieved (and then some), but Louisville did not get enough from the starting backcourt or star power forward Montrezl Harrell to overcome a second-half surge by Michigan State.
Freshman point guard Quentin Snider, who had played so well through the first three games, found himself in a funk and played more passive than he had played in those earlier games. He finished with just 4 points on just 2 of 9 shooting, and missed two key free throws.
Rozier played tenacious defense and played with aggression, but he could just not find the basket. He finished the game with 13 points on just 6 of 23 shots (mainly on breakaway layups) and got a little too one-on-one happy in the second half. He took multiple ill-advised shots, missed both of his three-point attempts, and committed a team-high three turnovers.
Harrell had a tremendous first half, scoring 12 points on 6 of 8 shooting, but he finished the game only scoring two more points, both on free throws. He finished the rest of the game missing his four remaining shots and only made 4 of 9 free throw attempts. He appeared completely gassed towards the middle of the second half, and for both him and potentially Rozier, it was an unfortunate way to finish their Louisville careers.
Yet, despite some subpar play from key players, Louisville was a victim of some horrendous officiating, too. Michigan State players were using their forearms to push off nearly the entire game, but no fouls were called. On the other end, Louisville would get whistled every time they came within an inch of a Michigan State jersey, it seemed. Wayne Blackshear, who was the star of the game for Louisville with a game-high 28 points, made a phenomenal block in transition that could have been a game saver that was called a foul, despite no physical contact. He was also called for two other ridiculous touch fouls, forcing Pitino to go to sophomore Anton Gill for a short time.
While they were impactful, though, the officials did not decide this game. Louisville had their opportunities. Many of them. Had Rozier put just a little more touch on his last second layup attempt, the ball may have went through the hoop. It would have prevented center Mangok Mathiang, a 48% foul shooter, from having to step to the line, where he would only make one of two free throws to send the game into overtime. Had someone put a body on Branden Dawson on his overtime put-back basket with under a minute left, maybe the game goes into another OT. Had Harrell hit his free throws, had Louisville capitalized on their open looks, maybe this game ends differently.
None of that happened, though, and as a result, Louisville has played their last game of the season. The reality, though, is that this team was not great, and they got this far due to great coaching and enormous heart. It was not the ending any fan wanted, but it was also a situation few expected Louisville to find themselves in.
For an underwhelming regular season where the team barely looked like they liked one another, they made tremendous strides in only a few weeks. If nothing else, the narrative for next season has completely changed.
Louisville loses some key players in Harrell, Blackshear, and (possibly) Rozier, but Rick Pitino has shown once again that he can do more with less than any coach in the game. This was a roster who had no business getting this far, and yet, there they were, a free throw away from the Final Four.
The noticeable development of bench players like Jaylen Johnson late in the season was a bright spot, the enormous potential of players like Anas Mahmoud is obvious, and a great recruiting class with possibly some impact graduate transfers is on the way.
A month ago, things appeared grim for the remainder of this season and especially next. Yet, Pitino showed that he is without a doubt still among the game’s greatest coaches, and next season, he will have more talent and depth to work with.
A future that once appeared foggy at best now appears much brighter, and a coach who looked frustrated and unhappy most of the regular season now looks like he is still in his coaching prime. That is something fans can smile about, even in defeat.