That turned out to be a wise plan as the 6-foot-9, 260-pound sophomore center scored a career-high 36 points to lead the Cardinals to a much needed 91-89 double-overtime victory. Samuels made 10-of-19 shots from the floor and also added six rebounds, two blocks and two assists.
"If you don't double Samardo on a nightly basis this is what you get – 36 points," Edgar Sosa said.
Notre Dame had no answer for Samuels down low without Harangody in the lineup. Mike Brey threw four different defenders at Samuels in his attempt to slow him down. He fouled all four out, including starters Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash. When he went to the foul line, Samuels made the Irish pay for their fouls, making 16 of 19 free throw attempts.
"He worked his tail off," Rick Pitino said. "Obviously we had an advantage and wanted to wear them out. We weren't going to stop going inside. Every play we were running was going through him. If we were going to get something it was going to be from him."
Pitino learned a valuable lesson in last year's blowout loss in South Bend. The Cardinals didn't work the ball inside, settled for three-pointers and were soundly beaten 90-57 by the Irish.
"We got blown out last year because they give you jump shots," Pitino said. "We were not going to deviate from our offense tonight. If we were going to lose it wasn't because we deviated from going inside."
In getting the ball inside to Samuels all night, Louisville showed tremendous patience on offense to feed him in the post. Pitino said that's a positive development for his young team.
"In the past we wouldn't have done that..we would have gotten jump shot happy," said Pitino. "You have to give credit where credit is due to our guys. We played extremely smart at Syracuse and extremely smart tonight. I didn't think I would use that term much with this basketball team."
Samuels received criticism from several quarters earlier this season, including Pitino. But Samuels has emerged as one of the most imposing centers in the league the past month, scoring in double-figures in 8 of Louisville's last ten games, including 25 points vs. Pittsburgh, 21 vs. Villanova and 18 vs. St. John's. Samuels leads UofL in points, rebounds and blocks this season.
"I think Samardo is getting a lot better at every phase of the game," Pitino said. "He needed to pass the basketball late, but he didn't. He's going to learn that. He was exhausted and played way to many minutes. I could've played TJ, should've played TJ, but I was afraid we'd lose. Not because of TJ, but because we knew how to score and it had to go through Samardo. It had to be his night, so he had to play exhausted. If not we were going to have to run a totally different offense."
Since losing five of eight games in January, Louisville has won four of five games this month. Samuels' improved play inside has had a lot to do with that turnaround. With just five regular-season games left, Louisville has positioned itself to receive an at-large NCAA bid with a few more wins.
If Samuels continues to play the way he did against Notre Dame, Louisville won't have to worry about being on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble when the brackets are filled out in March.