LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Louisville's frightful February funk continued Saturday afternoon with its fifth loss in seven games, and this one had both a familiar ring as well as some of the most bizarre happenings imaginable.
Third-ranked Virginia (24-2, 12-2 ACC) stormed from behind in the KFC Yum! Center for the second year in a row to hand UofL (18-10, 9-6) its fifth loss in the last seven games and defeat the 18th-ranked Cardinals for the eighth straight time, 64-52.
In what is becoming more of a troubling habit than simply a shortlived trend, the Cards frittered away a double-digit lead for the fourth time in their last five outings, a fatal shortcoming that point guard Christen Cunningham labeled "unacceptable."
"We played a good 20 minutes, but then once again up 10, we lose," Cunningham said. "We've blown leads now in three of the last five games and go to Syracuse and just get annihilated. We've got to change, got to be more resilient, got to be tougher, got to be able to withstand runs. The way we're playing now is just unacceptable."
Among the strangeness witnessed by 17,529 fans:
Virginia won despite two of the best long-range bombers in the ACC, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, going zero-for-11 from beyond the arc, the first time in their careers together that neither has hit a 3-pointer. Guy had hit at least one three in every game this season. In all, the Cavaliers, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, were 2-of-17.
Guy, who had a team-high eight rebounds, wound up with a season-tying low of eight points on 2-of-8 shooting to break a string of 19 double-figure scoring games, while Jerome was 2-of-12 for four points.
That should have enough by itself for UofL to pull off a major upset. Except that. . .
A trio of other players -- two of them subs -- stepped to the forefront to keep Virginia in first place in the ACC.
De'Andre Hunter, who UofL fans will remember for his last-second basket that capped the Cavs' miracle eight-second rally last year, scored a career-high 26 points -- 19 of them in the second half. He made all six of his shots in the second half and finished 9-of-11.
Two Virginia starters spent the entire second half on the bench, but they weren't missed because reserves Mamadi Diakite and little-used Jay Huff combined for 26 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks while hitting 13-of-18 shots.
Huff, a 7-1 sophomore who had scored a grand total of two points in his last three games and was scoreless in three of his last five, contributed 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
He and Diakite (14 points, five boards, three blocks) made life miserable at both ends of the court for UofL's two post players, Steven Enoch and Malik Williams. They combined for just six points and missed 14 of their 16 shots as the Cards were obliterated 38-4 in the paint.
"Give Virginia credit," UofL coach Chris Mack said. "They're an extremely big and physical team. In the second half, and really for the better part of the game, we just could not score around the rim."
More weirdness: Louisville was on fire and had the Yum! rocking in the first half, making 10-of-16 3-pointers (62.5 percent) to outscore the visitors (0-11) 30-0 in that department. But then the Cards threw up nothing but clunkers in the second half, going 2-of-17 on trifectas and 6-of-30 overall. For the game, they made only five 2-pointers.
"I thought our energy level to start the second half was poor -- why that is remains a mystery," Mack said. "To go into the locker room up 10 and then to come out with the type of energy level we did for the first four minutes, I thought really set the tone. We knew, or should know, that you're going to have some droughts when you play Virginia. Why we lost energy to start the second half is just tough to understand, and it set the tone."
The game was surreal from the start. UofL's first two possessions ended in a shot clock violation and an air ball 3-pointer by Dwayne Sutton. Then the Cards caught fire and couldn't miss, drilling their next seven treys in a row, a barrage that helped them build a 37-27 lead, double Virginia's largest halftime deficit of the season against Duke.
After UofL scored the first basket of the second period, though, the Cavs caught up at 41-41 with a 14-2 run sparked by Hunter's nine points and a defense that held the hosts to one field goal in seven minutes. Virginia took its first lead of the day at 49-47 on Guy's drive down the lane, and after that it was all Cavaliers.
Louisville missed 17 of its last 19 shots, including 11 in a row, and managed just two baskets in the last 11 1/2 minutes. Nwora, who led the Cards with 17 points, was typical of their problems in the second half. After making 3-of-7 shots in the first half, including a buzzer-beating 35-footer at the end of the period, Nwora was 2-of-9 the rest of the way.
The Cavs were the opposite, finding their comfort zone against Louisville's surprise 1-3-1 zone in the final 20 minutes to shoot 59 percent (13-22).
"We were a little slow getting to the shooters in the first half and they shoot it so well, I mean the ball's in their hands and it's off," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "We were a little quicker getting there in the second half. I just thought we bothered them, and we ran some decent offense. Jay Huff gave us a great lift offensively and De'Andre Hunter was special today. The way he played, that was a special performance. He's a terrific defender.
"It was really a gritty second half for us. It was so improbable last year, but this one was the way you're supposed to come back. Last year, I don't know, but this year is how you have to do it when you're in those spots."
It was UofL's fifth straight homecourt loss against a Top-25 team, with its only win against a ranked opponent in the Yum! coming on Nov. 27 with an 82-78 overtime victory over then-No. 9 Michigan State.
Unfortunately, the Cards haven't seen the last of Virginia. The teams will meet again in their season finale on March 9 in Charlottesville, Va. Before then, UofL will travel to Boston College Wednesday and host Notre Dame on March 3.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org