Louisville’s talented but young frontcourt eyes strong finish
NEWARK, N.J. — There were over 9,500 pairs of eyes at Saturday’s night game between Louisville and Seton Hall at the Prudential Center. Eyes that saw the Cards jump out quickly, take a lead by as much as 17 in the second half only to have the home standing Pirates make a spirited comeback that fall short.
With a 60-51 victory over Seton Hall, the Cards (17-5 overall, 5-4 Big East) have won four out of their last five after losing their previous four out of five. Up-and-down Louisville got an impressive performance from sophomore center Gorgui Deng, who collected his 10th double-double of the season, with 11 points and 14 rebounds. The center was a menace defensively, blocking five shots and altering at least 10 more. Dieng has 74 blocks on the season.
Most importantly for the Cards and Dieng, he didn’t succumb to foul trouble during the game. He did commit three but not early and often as what happened in an earlier season encounter with Kentucky (69-62 loss) and four other games he fouled out in.
You would think, despite an ugly second half performance by his team — the Cards committed a season-high 24 turnovers (18 in the second half) — that Louisville head coach Rick Pitino’s would be proud of Dieng’s performance.
But his eyes saw something different than the 9,500 in attendance.
“I don’t think Gorgui played particularly well tonight,” Pitino said. “I think the reason why he didn’t play particularly well is because of me not because of him. I think I’m playing him too many minutes.”
Maybe it was the four turnovers Dieng committed that made Pitino downplay Dieng’s performance. Dieng played 38 minutes and he’s going to be counted on to play heavy minutes due to attrition. The Cards have battled through many injuries this season, especially in the frontcourt. Junior forward Rakeem Buckles suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in mid-January against Marquette. It’s Buckles’ second career knee injury. Fellow junior forward Stephan Van Treese, who was expected to play backup minutes this season, was lost three games into the season when he reinjured his left knee.
“I’m just trying to get better everyday,” Dieng said. “I have to be unselfish and not complain about playing heavy minutes because my team needs me out there. We’ve had so many injuries; people doubt us but we’re getting better.”
It was Dieng who kick-started the Cards coming out of the locker rooms for the second half. Despite a 15-point halftime lead, if it wasn’t for Dieng’s impact the first several minutes of the second half, the Cards would’ve been in trouble late in the game because of the Pirates’ comeback attempt.
Thirty seconds into the second half, Dieng came up with a halfcourt steal while guarding Seton Hall’s sophomore swingman Fuquan Edwin. The steal led to a Peyton Siva lay-in on the other end. After converting 1-of-2 free throws nearly two minutes later, the improving jump shot work Dieng has put in paid off when he canned a straightaway jumper from top of the key.
Dieng capped off his initial second half impact with a block on Seton Hall’s senior point guard Jordan Theodore’s lay-in attempt. What was impressive about the block was Theodore drove into Dieng’s chest, then bounced off and while using his offhand to shield Dieng, it was the arms of the UL’s best shot blocker since Pervis Ellison that won out.
“I take it as a challenge to protect the lane,” Dieng said. “Anything I can do to help the team win is important to me. If it’s making a jump shot or blocking shots, I need to do what I can to help my team out.”
On the other hand, Pitino did see something though that according to him he hasn’t seen before, which was an overall stellar defensive performance from highly touted freshman forward Chane Behanan. The freshman collected 12 rebounds, scored eight points, and also as a defender on out-of-bounds plays, he harassed several entry passes by the Pirates, forcing them to commit three turnovers and burn two timeouts.
“I thought Chane was tremendous,” Pitino said. “In the first half, he got every rebound, he played terrific defense for the first time this year. Even though he had six turnovers and tried to hook a guy on the baseline, I thought he was the MVP without question. For the first time, I saw a guy who would absolutely kill to get rebounds and play defense; he was a man amongst boys tonight.”
After the game, Behanan, who now has six double-figure rebound games on the season, cracked a smile when told of Pitino’s comments.
“Every game, I have to have the mindset that with every missed shot, it’s going to get the rebound,” Behanan said. “Coach expects a lot out of me.”
Behanan and Dieng made key plays during the game’s pivotal moments.
Dieng and Behanan’s defense, particularly when he slid over to help out with guarding Seton Hall senior forward Herb Pope, made it hard for Pope to find a comfort zone underneath. Not until the game’s final minutes did Pope made a dent on the game. He shot only 4-of-12 from the field for 12 points.
“Pope’s a great player,” Behanan said. “You have to slide your feet and get a hand to contest his shot. Gorgui was able to make it hard for him with his blocking ability.”
There were several moments in the game where a Dieng block or Behanan rebound would jumpstart the Cards on the other end of the court. They collected 10 fastbreak points, and eight of them started with either a Dieng block or Behanan rebound. Behanan finished off one of Dieng’s blocks to give UL a 14-point lead with 4:31 left. That would be the Cards’ last bucket of the game.
“We know where each other on are the court,” Behanan said of his chemistry with Dieng. “If he gets a block, I know I’m going to be running full sprint to the other end for a shot.
It’s imperative going forward that the young pair continues what collectively they started in Newark. It’s the first time this season both Dieng and Behanan each had at least 10 rebounds in the same game. Due to non-existent depth on the frontline — junior backup forward Jared Swoopshire played all of eight minutes in the game — Behanan and Dieng will have to continue making the big little plays and cut down on the turnovers. Maybe then, their future Hall of Fame basketball coach and his eyes will he see a fully-optimized frontcourt.