Unbeaten Cards' polishing their credentials with a 'Wow!' factor

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Louisville's 64-46 victory over Pittsburgh (7-3, 1-1) in front of a late-night crowd (9 p.m. tipoff) in the KFC Yum! Center Friday night was a perfect 40-minute snapshot of why the Cardinals (9-0, 2-0 ACC) are ranked No. 1, are looking like the best team in the ACC at this early stage of the season and are prompting more and more believers to hop on their Final Four bandwagon.


Three nights earlier, in defeating No. 4 Michigan 58-43 in their first game since ascending to the top spot, the Cards had proven they could win ugly with tenacious defense when they are struggling to hit shots.


In some ways the win over Pitt was even more impressive. While snapping the Panthers' five-game winning streak and beating them for the 14th time in the last 15 outings, coach Chris Mack's team staged a clinic on offense, especially in the first half, combining it with another outstanding defensive effort.


The victory probably assured the Cards of remaining No. 1 for another week because they don't play again until after the next polls are released on Monday. UofL will face Texas Tech (5-3) in the Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.


The Red Raiders, who advanced to the Final Four last sesaon, were ranked No. 13/12 in the AP and the coaches preseason polls, but dropped out of the ratings last week after back-to-back losses to Iowa (72-61) and Creighton (83-76). Since then they lost their third straight, at DePaul, 65-60 in overtime on Wednesday.


It's already become obvious that Louisville can be exactly the team Mack and UofL fans thought it could be prior to the season -- a legitimate national championship contender. So far, the reality has equaled the expectations.


All on the same night, the Cards exhibited a combination of the deadly offensive firepower,  toughness, resiliency, versatility, togetherness, poise and strangling defense that is going to make them a nightmare to face throughout the regular season and into the postseason.


Something to consider, even though the NCAA Tournament is more than three months away: Louisville is ranked in the top 5 by Ken Pomeroy in both offfensive and defensive efficiency and four of the last five teams that had those credentials wound up becoming national champs.


Both factors were on display against Pitt. Incredibly, in the first half UofL had eight 3-pointers by eight different players all over the court and leading scorer Jordan Nwora was the LAST to hit one. Big men Steven Enoch and Malik Williams even stepped out to hit one each.


Told about that rare, if not unprecedented feat, on his radio show afterwards, Mack responded with one word:


"Wow!"


The Cards were 9-of-17 on treys in the first half and wound up hitting a season-high 11, on 26 attempts, for 42.3 percent. Excellent ball movement showed up in the 17 assists on 23 field goals.


"We have so many weapons offensively," said senior guard Ryan McMahon, who scored 11 points. "If you're a selfish team then you're not going to be able to exploit those weapons as well. We have a lot of selfless guys and we know anybody can get hot in a hurry. Whenever that person gets hot we're going right back to him running a play for him or we're looking for him in transition. That just shows the maturity of this team."


Defensively, UofL limited the Panthers to 37.7 percent shooting overall and 25 percent on threes (3-12), holding them scoreless for two stretches of almost six minutes and three more of over three minutes. The Cards led by as many as 14 points before Pitt sliced it to five, 47-42 with 8:44 left. Then UofL exploded for 13 unanswered points and finished the game on a 17-4 run.


Williams continued his recovery from a broken bone in his foot with season highs of 13 points and 11 rebounds in 20 minutes, also a season high. Darius Perry notched a season-best too with 13 points, and added five assists. Nwora didn't get his first basket until midway through the first half and had only seven points at intermission, but still led UofL with 19 points


"They're a really, really good team," Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. "They're No. 1 in the country for a reason. They talented, they're old, they're experienced, they're well-coached and they play together.


“They don’t give you a lot of driving opportunities, a lot of easy stuff at the basket. Their defense is so good because they’re older. Usually, when you’re older, you have a better concept of defense. They don't give you a lot of driving opportunities, a lot of easy stuff at the basket. They are very, very connected on the defensive end, and they have a really good mixture of size, length and athleticism."


NWORA PROVIDES A SCARE


The Cards, and the 17,249 fans on hand, got a scare when Nwora went to the floor with 11:04 remaining and got up holding his left shoulder and wincing in pain. He was helped off the court by trainer Fred Hina, but returned two minutes later and looked fine.


Mack described his reaction to the incident as "sheer panic."


"I saw his expression," Mack said. "That's the first thing I look for when a guy goes down. Sometimes they just want to rest. But when you see a little bit of fear, or a little bit of panic, which I saw in Jordan for a second. . .and you obviously don't want to lose your best player. I asked him, "Did it come out (dislocate)?" He said, "Almost." I said, "Well, almost doesn't count."


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 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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