If Dean's worth to this team wasn't already a known commodity before Saturday's game against Cincinnati, it should be readily apparent now. When Dean plays well, like he did against the Bearcats and is healthy, Louisville usually wins. When he's injured and absent from the lineup, the Cardinals can lose games to virtually anyone; See: Houston. Simply, Dean is the glue that holds all the Cardinals other pieces together.
Down 25-8 midway through the first half against No. 18 Cincinnati, Louisville was clearly on the ropes and in trouble of being knocked out early in the contest.
But Dean, a 6-3 junior from Red Bank, New Jersey who averages 14.0 points per game, simply wouldn't allow the Cardinals to stay down for the count. With his teammates struggling to score points against Cincinnati's sticky defense, Dean scored 11 first half points to keep his team within striking distance at the break.
Down 35-24 to begin the second half, Dean and the Cardinals had clearly regrouped in the locker room and came out swinging after the break. A couple of Dean three-pointers later, and the Cardinals were right back in the game, and this time they weren't going away.
When time expired on the Bearcats, Dean had finished with a game-high 25 points, including 7-13 three-pointers. (By the way, Dean has been dangerous all season from behind the arch. He came into the game hitting 50-percent of his three's (42-84) and ranked 15th nationally and No. 1 in C-USA in three-point accuracy.) His seven boards, an impressive number even if he weren't a guard, were just one less than the Cardinals leading rebounder, freshman Juan Palacios, hauled in. And he committed just two turnovers in 38 minutes against the aggressive Bearcats defense.
"I just wanted to come out of here with a win," an excited Dean said after the game. "That was the main thing. We never got down [on ourselves] and just had to survive their big push early."
Perhaps Dean's best effort of the day, though, came with just 8.8 seconds remaining and his team clinging to a tenuous 69-66 lead. With one final shot to tie the game and send it to overtime, Cincinnati's Jihad Muhammad took the ball in the backcourt, entered the frontcourt and hoisted up a deep, contested three-pointer with the bigger Dean draped on him. Muhammad's shot missed, Louisville rebounded, and the Cardinals, behind Dean's spectacular effort, escaped with an important league victory.
"Taquan didn't give him a good look [at the basket] and allow luck to enter into it," Pitino said afterward.
Dean, who hit 9-of-16 overall, and 6-4 Nick Williams of Cincinnati, provided the record crowd of 13, 176 at Fifth Third Bank Arena an exciting onslaught of deep balls throughout the game, trading baskets seemingly at will. In the end, however, Dean proved to have a little more ammunition in his arsenal than did Williams, who scored 18 points. "I looked at him during the second half and asked him if he wanted to have a shootout," Dean said.
Standing 3-1 in league play and the owners of three consecutive impressive conference wins, Dean has enough experience behind him to know his team can't afford to rest on their midseason laurels.
"We can't be satisfied with this win," the experienced Dean said. "We have to keep pushing [forward]."
Dean and the Cardinals, who are certain to move up this week in the national polls, will continue their push toward the program's first regular season C-USA title Wednesday at home against East Carolina.