LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville’s title prospects appeared shaky 11 days ago following a third consecutive loss and a left ankle injury that sidelined leading scorer Deng Adel.
But the Cardinals (18-8, 8-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) are back in the race with consecutive blowouts of Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh after some lineup changes and impressive contributions from their underclassmen. Their goal now is maintaining that momentum over the final five regular season games that will determine seeding for next month’s conference tournament in Brooklyn, New York.
“Our confidence is high, it always has been,” said Louisville junior forward Ray Spalding, who has nursed a sprained ankle as well. “But now it’s more about paying attention to little things when it comes down to stretches of the basketball game that we didn’t pay attention to before. We’re doing a better job. We’re just staying after it.”
Louisville interim coach David Padgett said Friday that barring further setbacks, Adel “should be ready to go a little bit” on Saturday night against No. 14 North Carolina (20-7, 9-5). The junior forward/guard still leads the Cardinals with a per-game average of 15.5 points, but freshmen — including guard Darius Perry and forward Jordan Nwora and sophomore guard Ryan McMahon — have filled the void with some of their best performances this season.
“They’re always ready to come off the bench when their number is called,” Spalding said.
Nwora has 29 points the past two games behind 6-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. The 6-foot-2 Perry had a team-high seven assists in Sunday’s 94-60 rout of Pitt and has developed backcourt chemistry with senior Quentin Snider. Every contribution has been helpful as the Cardinals sought to regroup from their recent slump.
“It was a collective effort from a lot of guys to step up when we needed to and it helped us get two very good wins,” Padgett added.
That has been evident in Louisville’s tall, lengthy frontcourt, which has developed a strong inside presence with many combinations.
Senior 7-footer Anas Mahmoud has averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds in three starts after coming off the bench the previous 10 contests. Freshman Malik Williams, 6-11, has improved on defense. Despite being injured in a close loss to FSU, Spalding (11.4 points, 8.8 rebounds) has been one of the Cardinals’ most consistent performers on both ends of the floor.
Though Louisville’s wins have come against teams that are a combined 4-23 in league play, the Cardinals will take anything they can get after three defeats by 19 total points. Padgett is especially glad his team quickly regrouped to respectively limit the Yellow Jackets and Panthers to 36 percent and 35 percent shooting while forcing 33 combined turnovers.
“The most impressive thing I saw these last two games with Deng being out is nobody tried to do everything themselves in the absence of one of your better players,” the coach said.
“Guys came in and did what they did. Nobody tried to do anything that they can’t do, nobody tried to do anything that they shouldn’t do. They just played their roles.”
Louisville hopes its depth will help the Cardinals down the stretch, starting with the high-scoring Tar Heels.
Sandwiched between road games next week at No. 12 Duke and Virginia Tech and the regular season finale at North Carolina State the following weekend is a March 1 rematch with top-ranked Virginia, which is 6-1 against the Cardinals since they entered the ACC. A huge hurdle for sure, but one the Cardinals believe they can clear if everyone is involved.
“It’s five very difficult games, there’s no beating around the bush on that,” Padgett said, “but it’s five opportunities to give us a chance to get some really good wins.”