LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Going into Friday's game against a tall and physical Seton Hall team that featured 7-2, 270-pounder and a 6-11, 240-pounder on its front line, Louisville basketball coach Chris Mack had urged freshman reserve J.J. Traynor to not let himself get bullied.
He didn't and he even went his coach one better. With the game on the line, Traynor became the bully.
The 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward from Bardstown, Ky., came through with several clutch plays in the final seconds to help UofL (2-0) escape with a 71-70 win over Seton Hall (0-1) after blowing a double-digit lead in the Wade Houston Tipoff Classic in the KFC Yum! Center.
In the last 22 seconds, Traynor grabbed two rebounds, put one of them back in and sank two free throws just when the Cardinals appeared to be on the verge of losing a game they had controled most of the way.
"I learned a lot, didn't really play well the whole game," Traynor said. "Was getting mixed up on defense. Learning, just learning. But toward the end my competitiveness took over. It was a big moment and I was trying to be as poised as possible because the team depended on me. I was just trying to make the right plays."
With UofL trailing 69-68 with 22 seconds left, Traynor grabbed the rebound of his own missed shot despite being surrounded by three Seton Hall players and scored to give the Cards the lead for good. Then after getting another rebound he was fouled and made both free throws.
Those four were his only points of the game and he finished with three rebounds in 16 minutes.
"It's one thing when you're playing well all along and you've got a little confidence in yourself," Mack said. "But I think J.J. would tell you he was a little out of sorts, didn't play his best, and for him to have the presence of mind, the mental toughness to stay with it and make a couple plays down the stretch that allowed us to win the game says a lot about him.
"His improvement has been rapid and his ceiling is just through the roof. All we ask of J.J. is don't let your physical strength be a negative. Don't get bullied. If you don't get bullied, you can finish around the rim, you can block shots. He was going against some big, tough, physical guys and he really grew up."
Two other rookies also made significant contributions down the stretch as freshman Dre Davis converted a 3-point play after UofL had fallen behind 65-62 and redshirt freshman Jae'Lyn Withers got the next basket on a drive down the lane.
"It was huge for them to step up the way they did," said guard Carlik Jones. "A lot of guys think, 'I'm a freshman, I'm the new guy,' and they have some reluctance. But in preseason those guys worked, grind to get better and it showed. I know a lot of people automatically think freshmen can't come in and do what they did and I applaud them. They came out and showed what they were made of."
So did Jones, again. After flirting with a triple-double against Evansville when he got 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, he turned in a similar performance against Seton Hall with 18 points, a game-high 11 rebounds and six assists. Not bad for a 6-1 guy who was the shortest player on the floor all the time.
And Jones' contributions didn't stop there; he showed he isn't reluctant to use some mind games on an opponent if the situation demands it.
When Quinn Slazinksi fouled the Pirates' Takal Molson on a 3-point attempt with seventh-tenths of a second remaining, Molson went to the foul line needing to make all three free throws to force overtime. He hit the first two, but missed the third and UofL's David Johnson rebounded as time ran out. Jones said he did his best to rattle Molson.
"I talked to him and tried to get into his head and freeze him after he hit the first one," Jones said. "I told him, 'I'm right behind you', just to mess with his head a little bit and acted like I was going to trade places with David Johnson on the lane."
Although Slazinski, a 6-8 sophomore reserve, could have been the goat because of his ill-advised foul, he had done his part before that, getting 10 points and seven rebounds, both easily career highs. Last year he had a total of 15 points and 10 rebounds in 15 games.
Davis and Withers each wound up with 11 points for Louisville, which led by 11 points at the 8-minute mark before Seton Hall rallied with an 11-0 run. Sandro Mamukelashvili, a 6-11 forward from the Republic of Georgia, got got 22 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Pirates, who were playing their first game after practicing just three times in nearly three weeks due to a two-week pause for coronavirus issues.
WILLIAMSON HURT--UofL starting forward Samuel Williamson left the game with a toe injury early in the second half and didn't return. Mack said he wasn't sure of the severity of Williamson's injury or whether he would be available for Sunday's game against Prairie View A&M.
"I'm proud of our guys," Mack said. "We're down so many players I feel like we have more players that are hurt than healthy, and for us to battle a veteran, older team, a tough, physical team and to watch our two freshmen, J.J. and Dre, make some of the plays they did down the stretch after Sam going out was terrific."
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.