A game Illinois State team pushed No. 5 Louisville to the brink on Saturday before the Cardinals escaped with a 69-66 victory to move to 6-1.
The Redbirds were the obvious aggressor in the game's opening minutes and raced out to a 14-2 lead. Louisville responded by turning up their defensive pressure, but the hot shooting of Owensboro native Tyler Brown and the inside play of Jackie Carmichael allowed Illinois State to head into halftime with a 33-25 lead.
The Cards answered the bell in the second half, even after Peyton Siva picked up his 4th foul with just under 14 minutes remaining. Russ Smith again played the role of hero, finishing with a team-high 24 points and seemingly getting to the free-throw line every time U of L was in desperate need of a score. Siva added 20, including a handful of key 3-pointers during Louisville's key run.
Despite the star guards combining for 44 points, it might be the play of Stephan Van Treese that warrants the most praise. The backup senior center played 34 minutes and finished with a modest eight rebounds and six points, but did a tremendous job on Carmichael and seemed to keep about a dozen plays alive with his hustle. Louisville simply could not survive without him on the floor today.
The other key story was the officials, who appeared to be guessing and hoping for the bulk of the final 15 minutes of play. Both sides were victimized by the striped trio, but it was Chane Behanan getting away with an obvious goaltend and an even more obvious foul on a 3-point attempt in the final seconds that stood out more than anything. I love that we won, but I hate that it ended in that fashion for the Redbirds.
People ripped on me when I said it earlier today, but Illinois State is a good team and Jackie Carmichael is about as good a post player as Louisville will face this season. And that's not me trying to make anyone feel better about a narrow victory.
Dan Muller is a great young coach, and his team came in with a terrific gameplan and took full advantage of a U of L team that appeared disinterested before it fell behind by double-digits.
Aside from its play in the opening minutes and in the final one, though, I thought this was a very solid effort from a Cardinal team that's still learning what it does and does not need to do without Gorgui Dieng (Blazer Gorgs). It reminded me a lot of last year's win over Ohio, when an undermanned U of L team was nearly upset by the Bobcats at home and everyone freaked out a little bit. The Cards made the plays they needed to and defeated a solid team that went on to advance to the Elite Eight.
Life without Gorgui Dieng isn't going to be as sweet as life with Gorgui Dieng, we knew that. This month is all about getting better as a team without losing games. Both of those goals were met this afternoon.