LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Louisville basketball's Chris Mack Era got off to a winning start Thursday night in the KFC Yum! Center, but don't expect the coach to be turning cartwheels after a lackluster 85-72 victory over Nicholls State.
In a dour post-game press conference, Mack made it clear he wasn't pleased after the Cardinals had struggled to put away the Southland Conference team, which was playing with a new starting lineup.
Nicholls was the kind of low-level Division I club that most past Louisville teams would have put away early. Instead, the Cards were clinging to a precarious two-point lead heading into the final 3 1/2 minutes and needed deadly free throw shooting to hold off the visitors after their 3-point barrage had wiped out most of a 14-point deficit.
So, how does it feel to get your first win at Louisville, coach?
"Not very good, to be honest with you," Mack said. "I don't think we played very well, I don't think we were very tough. You know, we've got tougher games coming, so I'm happy we won, but I'm certainly not happy the way we won. We've got to figure it out.
"We've got a long way to go, that's for sure. We have to get a lot better in a hurry and hopefully tonight was a little dose of reality for some of our guys."
Having seen this group in practice for only slightly over a month, Mack said he wasn't sure what to expect, but his demeanor and remarks suggested he expected more in every way than he witnessed.
"Who knows what to expect, that's part of taking over a new program and new personnel," Mack said. "But there were occasions out there on the floor tonight that I didn't like what I saw. Our attention to detail, our toughness on the defensive end, on the glass. But game one, you've got to learn from it and get better because of it."
Center Steven Enoch led four double-figure scorers for UofL with 15 points, while Darius Perry added 14 and V.J. King and Jordan Nwora had 12 apiece.
Jeremiah Jefferson, a sharpshooting graduate student from Jackson State, scored a game-high 24 points and helped spark Nicholls' late rally with his 3-point shooting. The Colonels hit 9-of-18 from beyond the arc in the second half after making only 3-of-14 in the first period. Jefferson, Brandon Moore Jr. and Gavin Peppers combined to make 10-of-13 treys overall, with Pepper going 4-for-4.
UofL seemed to have the game under control when it opened a 64-50 lead with 7:51 remaining. But a long-range bombardment by Nicholls made it a game again, and when Pepper hit his team's fourth 3-pointer in four minutes, the Colonels trailed only 68-63 with 3:31 left.
Nicholls made only two more baskets the rest of the way, though, and the Cards salted the game away at the foul line, sinking 14-of-15 free throws the rest of the way. Their aggressiveness put them at the foul line often throughout the game and they finished 42-of-55 to offset a field goal deficit of five. The Colonels were whistled for 38 fouls, with five players fouling out and two others finishing with four each.
"I thought we had some good moments at time," UofL forward Dwayne Sutton said. "In the second half, they came out, got hot and hit some tough threes over our length to make the game a lot more interesting than I thought it should have been. But they were a scrappy team.
"Coach Mack thought we should have been a lot more energetic on defense. He felt at times we were just out there going through the motions, and I agree with him. I thought at times we kind of let off the gas. We needed to bring more intensity throughout the game."
Louisville returns to action Tuesday night against Southern in the Yum! Center.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.