With 15:28 to play in the Countdown Classic in America's best basketball arena, Indy's Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Louisville's once fifteen point advantage over Indiana had been whittled to 46-36.
During that media timeout, I turned to my pal Doc and offered that the critical juncture in this harum scarum tilt was at hand. Who was he to disagree?
Sure enough, the Hoosiers cut the U of L lead to six at the 11:57 media stoppage, 50-44. Plus IU would have possession when play resumed. The candy-striped crowd -- the place, dominated by loyalty-clothed Hoosier fans, looked like Willie Wonka's factory -- was momentarily pumped.
It is at this point in my narrative that I need to and shall recant my opinion rendered in the Comments section of my UVa game report. Donovan Mitchell, it now appears, is no longer, if he ever was, mired in a "sophomore slump." My apologies for that ersatz judgement.
When play resumed, Ray Spalding pilfered the rock from the Hoosiers. Mitchell then, as I am wont to say, grabbed the battle, such as a smackdown of this order might be called, by the short and curlies.
He drained a trifecta. 53-44. The Cards forced a turnover on their foe's next possession. Mitchell put his ath-e-let-i-cism on display with a wondrous drive to the hoop. 55-44. After a quick IU counter, Mitchell pulled out the Bill Raftery dagger, plunging it into the Hoosiers' heart with another three. 58-44.
All together now: Ball Game!!!
Yes, the Crimson & Crean did cut the lead again to seven, but that Mitchell interlude proved that the Cardinals were the dominator and would not be denied on New Year's Eve day. Soon enough, that candy striper contingent thinned out, faded into its own parade, taking its leave to commence what would be less than ebullient evening plans. The champagne bubbles had burst, their balloons already deflated.
Here's what Mitchell's career day stat line looked like: 6/8 from the field, including 3/4 from beyond the arc, 2/2 at the line and a couple rebounds.
Gotcha . . . that's in the second half alone.
For the whole affair, he tallied 25, canning 8/15 from the field, 4/8 from from the New Year's Eve bandstand set up outside the arena for last evening's "festivities," 5/6 at the stripe, 3 boards, 3 assists and a steal.
What sophomore slump, I'm now required to inquire?
Is he now in the conversation as best sixth man in the land? (The Rick shook up his starting five, with V.J. King, Anas, Ray and no DM on the court at tip.)
The only thing Mitchell didn't do was explain what that little thingie was flapping on the back of his shorts.
* * * * *
Donovan was not the only Cardinal who came up huge.
Anas Mahmoud totally dominated the paint. Though his stat line only registered two rebounds, three blocks, two steals and ten points. Sometimes numbers lie. (More on that in a bit.)
I am so sure than any doubt about AM's performance would be dispelled by asking IU's heralded big Thomas Bryant what it was like in the middle?
AM's career game?
Deng Adel overcame two woeful point blank misses early, and his usual please get the ball out of his mitts ball handling, with 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
DA's career game?
And . . . and . . . and . . . there was Jaylen Johnson. He snared 7 tough rebounds, four of which were I am the man here now offensive grabs. He made all five of his FG attempts, and was 3/4 at the line. Loved his spin move to retrieve a missed Mangok Mathiang FT. Oh yeah, and his nifty maneuver to get open for a bunny on the inbounds play after the last media timeout.
It's not like the rest of the guys were chopped liver.(More about that too in a moment.)
Louisville connected 53% of the time from the field, including 8/19 (42%) from long range. The Cards netted 15/18 FTs. 83% Glossy.
U of L's defense was stifling, impenetrable, dominating, suffocating, and . . . oh feel free to choose the adjective of your choice.
Coming in, the Hoosiers were averaging 92 ppg with the 8th best FG % in land. They were held to 62 points, hitting only 32% of their shots, connecting on only four of 21 attempts from beyond the arc. The box score shows only 14 turnovers, but it sure seemed like they were guilty of twice that many.
IU was, to use technical terminology, bamboozled.
* * * * *
As much as I rely on numbers to prove my point, they often misrepresent.
IU won the rebounding battle, 39-28, grabbing 19 offensive boards. Giving the Hoosiers 21 2d chance points to only 5 for the Cards.
None of which was of any consequence in the end.
The stats assuredly belie how this game belonged to the Cardinals pretty much from the get go. U of L took the lead with 8:55 to go before intermission, and did not relinquish it the rest of the way.
* * * * *
So, as I sat at Shapiro's after the sublime W with my gang, replaying our favorite plays, savoring my go to repast of pastrami & swiss, latkes and the deli's incredible carrot cake, I couldn't help but feel the warmth of an incredible final day of a very disturbing year. (Unfortunately for Doc, the place, full with fans from the game, ran out of chopped liver. Given the thrill of victory, he handled the setback with dignity, and a corned beef on rye.)
With all due respect to the Cardinal pigskinners who continued their late season deflation in Orlando with their third straight L, Indy was the place for Cardinal fans for serious, life enhancing fun.
Beating IU, by fifteen no less, beating Tom Crean, then celebrating the victory at my favorite deli with my long time best peeps is about as good as it gets.
Next up: The Fighting Irish in South Bend, in a key early league game in the topsy turvy ACC.
-- Seedy K