LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — Time for a reset. It's February, a month when teams either build momentum toward March Madness or fall by the wayside, and Louisville is headed in the wrong direction.
Granted a three-game homestand and four KFC Yum! Center appearances in five games by the vagaries of Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, with the only road game against hapless Pittsburgh, the Cardinals (16-7, 6-4) were aiming for a five-game winning streak to steal them for a tough closing slate.
Instead, Louisville suffered its third loss in the last four games, falling to Florida State (17-6, 6-5) 80-76 Saturday afternoon in front of 18,305 fans, the second-biggest home crowd of the season that included Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who watched from a suite.
Prominently seated at courtside were athletics department critic John Schnatter and Mark Jurich, who had been fired from his job as associate athletics director 24 hours earlier.
What they saw was the Cards suffering a costly defeat due to struggles on offense and defensive breakdowns. They dropped into a three-way tie for fourth place with Miami and NC State and put more pressure on themselves for Monday night's game against Syracuse (15-8, 4-6), which lost to Virginia 59-44 in the Carrier Dome Saturday.
"Any home loss is really bad," UofL center Anas Mahmoud said. "There's really no time for us to cry about it, but it's definitely going to affect us because any loss at home is going to hurt you in the long run. Like DP said, we dropped one at home, so now we've got to get another one on the road. We've definitely got to take care of the rest of our home games."
Florida State, which avenged a 73-69 loss in Tallahassee on Jan. 10, came into the game as one of the most generous teams in the ACC, but the Seminoles' defense thwarted the Cards in the second half. And the Seminoles were also the aggressors on offense, driving into the lane to score on a layup or draw a foul.
Florida outscored the hosts 34-24 in the paint, hit 21-of-36 free throws and became the third team in a row to hit over 50 percent in the second half and 45 percent or over for the game against Louisville.
"We've got to get that edge back on defense," Mahmoud said. "We can't let people come in here and score 80 points and expect to win the game. We have to get some stops, and that's what we have to focus on."
The Cards, meanwhile, were limited to 42.4 percent overall, including just 36.4 (12-33) in the last 20 minutes. They managed only one basket during a nearly-seven-minute stretch in the second half that allowed Florida State to take control.
"Florida State is a really underrated defensive team," Mahmoud said. "They pressure you so high they take you out of what you're trying to do. They took away the handoffs, took away the screens and you're left with whatever you get. I think we settled a lot for jump shots and a lot of just dribbling the ball instead of moving the ball around."
Said Deng Adel, who led Louisville with 19 points and also had eight rebounds: "They do a great job of breaking you apart and not letting you run your offense. But I think our biggest concern is on the defensive end. We didn't do a good job of containing them, got them to the (foul) line too many times."
Even with all their shortcomings, the Cards had a chance to either win the game or send it into overtime after falling behind 65-57 and trailing 78-71 heading into the final 40 seconds. Quentin Snider hit a 3-pointer and scored again nine seconds later on a twisting, driving layup with 25 seconds left following an FSU turnover to narrow the deficit to 78-76.
Then Terance Mann missed two free throws at 0:17.4 to leave the door ajar for Louisville, although with no timeouts remaining. V.J. King drove the lane and looked as if he was going to score and send the game into overtime. But at the last minute, Mann blocked the shot and MJ Walker put an exclamation point on the Noles' victory with a dunk as time expired.
"We came down and wanted somebody to go downhill and it just happened to be me," King said. "I didn't make the play, but give all the credit to them. The guy made a great play and blocked the shot. I was trying to draw the foul. I could have done a better job going up stronger to finish it."
Obviously upset interim UofL coach David Padgett, who set a personal record with an 82-second post-game press conference that included just three questions, indicated he didn't have a problem with King's play.
"You don't have a timeout, it's tough to get everybody in the right spot," Padgett said. "There was a lot of chaos going on. But we spread the floor and we had a good one-on-one player going downhill. The kid, I think it was Mann, made a big defensive play when they needed it."
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said he decided to tell his players to be aggressive going to the basket because the Cards were guarding the 3-point line so closely.
"We took what the defense gave us," Hamilton said. "They were doing a great job defending us on the perimeter. They were not going to give us any looks. When you're playing people as aggressively as they were, we were very fortunate to get into the lane. We got to the foul line and we finished a couple of plays."
Louisville was at a disadvantage in the closing minutes because Ray Spalding was on the bench, having suffered an apparent ankle injury. He left the game at the 4:17 mark with 13 points, a team-best nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Padgett said he didn't know the extent of Spalding's injury.
Snider wound up with 15 points and King added 10, all but three of them in the first five minutes of the game.
Phil Cofer scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half to lead six Seminole players in double figures. Christ Koumadje, a 7-4 junior from N'Djamena, Chad, had 11 points, eight rebounds and three of the Nole's five blocks. All four of Koumadje's field goals came on dunks off lobs.
"You've got to give them credit," Padgett said. "They came in here and exposed us on defense and outrebounded us (43-34), which we knew was going to be a big key. That team was desperate for a win and they came out and showed it."
Now the Cards will try to shake off their frustration and disappointment against Syracuse, a team they have beaten three straight times and five of the last six.
"It's frustrating," Mahmoud said. "You're right there, but you don't make enough plays to win the game. You can't put a loss like this out of your mind; it's always going to stay with you. But instead of being a pain, make it a drive for you to go out the next game angry and ready to play hard."
Or as Adel put it: "We've got to get Monday. We've got to bounce back."