At intermission, after two quarters when the Louisville Cardinals did little to hide their disdain for playing this NIT game, I ran into a couple I know, outliers amidst the spate of fresh-faced faithful who had filled the lower bowl of the Yum! to cheer on their beleaguered team.
The twosome were big Card fans, and among the few big donor season ticket holders, who chose to continue their support for their squad playing in “the other tournament.”
Yet, when I chatted them up, they were heading toward the exit. They had seen enough.
”We just can’t take it. If the team doesn’t want to be here, we can’t watch.”
Normally I would have morphed into inner scolding parent mode. But didn’t. I understood.
The Cards had sleepwalked through the opening two periods like they really would have rather been under the watchful eyes of a tutor at the Center for Studies and Excellence or whatever that new place is called, boning up for an exam in Advanced Molecular Computer Biometrology.
Playing as if they could give a shit, they trailed the truly mediocre Norse by seven, 23-30.
The Cards “Big 3” -- Deng Adel (1/6), Quentin Snider (1/5), and Ray Spalding (1/5) -- were a combined 3/16, and had committed 3 of U of L’s 4 turnovers. As a whole unit, Louisville, playing with a yawn, hit but 25% of its shots, and were -2 on the boards to the significantly shorter, lesser visitors.
In fact, I myself had texted a fellow fan during the 2d stanza, and opinionated that it was time to move on from this inglorious campaign.
Enough is enough.
Then something bordering on the almost magical happened.
The “World’s Most Beautiful Arena,” with its fancy schmantzy Club Section bars and egregiously overpriced concessions and commercial-overloaded timeouts, turned into an honest to Peck Hickman gymnasium.
The Palestra. The Armory, where the Cards played regularly the year they won this tourney in ‘56. (Absent the blue cloud of cigarette smoke that hovered over the hardwood in those days.)
The upper deck was curtained off for the evening, but the lower bowl was full to the brim with fans who truly love the Cardinals, but don’t have the financial wherewithal to pay the Jurich tariff necessary for season ducats.
But, for twenty bucks a shot, they donned their red & black garb, packed the kids in the station wagon and headed downtown to fill the joint, and cheer on their faves.
If the team didn’t care, they certainly did. The portly fellow in the gray t-shirt in 118, who turned into Rob Hickerson, leading a C A R D S cheer. The sweet elderly couple who as they tried to find their seats in a first ever visit to the Yum! gazed at wonder at the Hall of Fame wall murals and the view out the windows of the receding Ohio.
And the kids, lots of kids, up way past their normal bedtimes, who were going to shout their support until the Cards came home winners.
So it was willed. So it was done.
* * * * *
Even though each of that trio of Cardinal leaders coughed it up in the opening moments of the 3d, an energetic Adel led a U of L surge that tied the tilt at 36 with 3:36 to play in that stanza.
Implored by the loving throng that wouldn’t stop cheering and wouldn’t sit down, the Cardinals were revitalized, as if they’d been shot up with Five Hour Energy (or something stronger) during the break.
U of L wasn’t playing really well, but at least they were playing as if they cared.
A Ryan McMahon steal out of a Norse timeout led to a Darius Perry breakaway thunderslam and a 45-44 U of L advantage as the 3d closed.
Dickie V’s favorite Cardinal cranked the crowd noise to 11 when he opened scoring in the 4th with a rainbow trey.
Darius Perry then stole the rock, but NKy got it back when the freshman was fouled, but it wasn’t called. Not to be deterred, McMahon immediately picked another pocket, drove it the length of the court and kissed a layup high off the glass through the nets.
Perry completed the takeover of the game with a deuce after another Norse-called stoppage for 52-44 advantage, which ratcheted up to ten with a couple of VJ King FTs at 6:28.
The vanquished didn’t come closer than five the rest of the way.
66-58 was the final.
Even more heartwarming frankly, unlike the usual customers, this crowd mostly didn’t head to the exits until the clock hit zeros, and they could let their team know how much they cared.
* * * * *
Stars of the Game (in alphabetical order): Fans in the Stands (God bless every last one of them), Ryan McMahon, Darius Perry.
For better or worse, Louisville moves on, and sometime in the next five days will host Middle Tennessee, which shredded Vermont 91-64 in its opener.
Hopefully this downtrodden band of Cardinals will enter the upcoming game with more energy and focus and desire.
-- Seedy K