The, 62-61 loss, was upsetting, disappointing and frustrating – to players, coaches and fans. Before the season, though, most everyone around here would have been happy just to make the tournament this season.
This was a team, after all, that wasn't given much chance after losing four starters from last season's underachieving team. Despite numerous shortcomings, Rick Pitino's team overcame injuries all season, including season-ending ones to starting forwards Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles, to wildly exceed expectations.
These Cardinals, remember, were picked to finish eighth in the Big East in the preseason, and many never gave them a shot to even make the NCAA's. Still, Pitino's Cardinals banded together and played their rears off all season – entering the tournament ranked No. 14 nationally after finishing third in America's toughest conference and advancing to the Big East championship game last week.
Knowles was the heart and soul of this Louisville team all season long. His shooting had been off recently, including his final game against the Eagles (Knowles made just 3 of 10 shots from the floor), and he made consecutive turnovers before leaving the game that helped Morehead State cut Louisville advantage in half.
But Knowles was the one guy Louisville could least afford to lose. He was the one player on Louisville's roster with extensive NCAA experience. On a team lacking a go-to player, he was the one guy capable of making big plays down the stretch in a close ballgame.
When Knowles hobbled to the bench, Louisville led 48-44. With Knowles out, Morehead State scored 13 of the next 17 points to take a 57-52 lead 5:24 remaining. That wasn't coincidence.
Louisville wasn't about to quit, though. These guys might have lacked talent, but they never lacked toughness or grit. Pitino called his troops together to make one final push and the Cardinals responded, reclaiming a, 61-57, lead with 32 seconds left.
That's when an old bugaboo cost the Cardinals the season. No, not rebounding – free throw shooting. Clinging to a two-point advantage, freshman guard Elisha Justice, in the game for the injured Knowles, stepped to the line for a one and one. Hit two free throws and the Cards likely advance to Saturday's third round against Richmond. Instead, Justice missed the front end. You know what happened on Morehead State's final possession.
For the game, Louisville missed 9 of 16 free throw attempts. Justice was 1 of 3; Kyle Kuric 1 of 4; Chris Smith 2 of 4. Those are the guys that are supposed to knock down the free throws. Instead they combined to miss 7 of 11 attempts. In the end, poor free throw shooting did the Cardinals in, just as it had in several other games this season, including Louisville's loss at West Virginia in the regular-season finale.
Despite a sour ending to the season, the future looks bright for the Cardinals. Most of the key players from this year's team, except Knowles, are expected to return in 2011-12. Louisville also adds McDonald's All-Americans Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan to lineup. Throw in 6-foot-11 Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods and Rick Pitino could have his deepest team ever at Louisville next season.
After the sting of the Morehead State loss subsides, hopefully Pitino's 2010-11 Cards will be remembered for their 25 wins, including victories over Butler, UNLV, Notre Dame, UConn and Pittsburgh, instead of their final loss in the Mile High city. After all, this was an overachieving team that battled all season to overcome their numerous shortcomings, and several key injuries.
In the end, I'll remember these guys for their team-first attitude, relentless effort and tenacious grit. For a team lacking size and talent – and devoid of lofty preseason expectations - Rick Pitino's Cardinals certainly delivered a fun, enjoyable season - one that simply ended too soon.
Season FactsFinal Record: 25-10
Final Ranking: 14th
Roster Losses: Preston Knowles, George Goode
Roster Additions: Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan, Tony Woods, Angel Nunez and Zach Price