LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- In the end, Louisville's 76-50 victory over USC Upset, er Upstate, Wednesday night looked like just another routine thrashing of the latest overmatched November opponent to serve as a whipping boy and pad the Cardinals' record.
Don't be fooled. For nearly three-fourths of the game, the Spartans looked as if they might be U of L's Evansville. They were aggressive, they shot surprisingly well and they kept the Cards' explosive offense under control.
With under 13 minutes remaining, USC Upstate (1-5) actually LED UofL (5-0) 43-40. The same Upstate team that had been drubbed at Akron by 31 points two nights earlier. That had lost at Virginia Tech by 23 points.
The same Upstate club that Ken Pomeroy ranked 346th of 353 Division I teams, meaning it was the worst team Louisville had played at home since he started ranking teams in 2002.
Yet the Spartans had silenced the KFC Yum! Center fans and looked as if they could be on the verge of a shocker that would have far overshadowed Evansville's upset of then-No. 1 Kentucky a week ago.
Then the No. 2 team in the nation finally showed up and it turned into the kind of dominating performance that was expected from the opening tip.
Dwayne Sutton's 3-pointer from the top of the key got the crowd involved and ignited a 20-3 run that included three other treys, two by Ryan McMahon and one by Darius Perry. The run also featured a monster block by Steven Enoch on Josh Alrich's attempted dunk.
When the smoke cleared U of L was in control 60-46 and went on to finish the game on a 36-7 surge as the Spartans managed only two baskets in the last 10 1/2 minutes.
Jordan Nwora, Ryan McMahon and Sutton were the main architects of the win. Nwora topped Louisville with a season-high 28 points, hitting 11-of-19 shots, while McMahon had 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting from behind the arc and Sutton pulled down a career-best 15 rebounds
USC stayed close for 30 minutes and matched the Cards punch for punch by bleeding the shot clock and shooting better than it had previously. The Spartans came into the game hitting just 25.6 percent from 3-point range, but made 6-of-13 in the first half to trail only 34-28 at intermission.
But U of L turned up its defensive pressure in the final 12 minutes and USC Upstate was 3-of-12 in the second half to wind up 9-of-24 for 37.5 percent.
"The intensity of our defense in the last 12 minutes was much different than it was in the first 28 minutes," U of L coach Chris Mack said. "We played with zero hands on live dribblers and gave them open threes off the bounce. I don't think our guys were not ready to play, but when USC hit a few semi-contested threes, we almost lost a little zest for the game like we expected it to be easier.
"The biggest message I had at halftime was, teams that really defend get tougher as the shot clock dwindles down. I felt we were getting softer. When you have three seconds on the shot clock the offense should be in a real bind; you don't have many options and for us to foul. . .Hopefully, this is something we can grow from and learn from."
The game marked the much anticipated and long-awaited debut of freshman point guard David Johnson and junior center Malik Williams, even though Mack had said Tuesday afternoon that they probably wouldn't play. Johnson has been out with a shoulder injury since this summer and Williams was sidelined with a broken bone in his foot for eight weeks.
Williams entered the game for the first time with 3:36 remaining and Johnson followed at 8:11 of the second half. Williams played five minutes, getting three points and three rebounds. Johnson had four points on two dunks in four minutes.
"I knew I was going to play David and I texted both of them last night," Mack said. "I didn't give Malik a certainty and he said whatever I decided was fine with him. Then today he had Darius become his attorney to try and convince me. We wouldn't put them out on the floor if we didn't think they were ready to go."
Louisville will host Akron on Sunday night in the final game of its five-game homestand. The Zips (3-1) are at home against Youngstown State on Thursday night.
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.