LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Just as coach Chris Mack wanted, feeling it was crucial to his basketball team's chances for a victory, Louisville got off to a solid start against Indiana Saturday afternoon, jumping ahead 8-2 and leading by as many as eight points early.
It was the end of the game that turned out to be the problem.
The Cardinals (6-3) faltered in the final minutes at both ends of the court and the Hoosiers (8-2) took advantage of the lapses to pull out a dramatic 68-67 victory that was played at high intensity from start to finish in front of 17,222 raucous fans in Assembly Hall.
It was so noisy, that instead of yelling out instructions to his players, coach Chris Mack had his assistants write plays on a whiteboard and hold it up for them to read.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for UofL and overshadowed a brilliant performance by sophomore forward Jordan Nwora, who posted a monster double-double of 24 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs, and also had three steals.
But he didn't get enough help. While Christen Cunningham scored 16 points and Ryan McMahon added 11, Darius Perry -- who was averaging 8.6 points -- missed all seven of his field goal attempts and UofL got just a combined eight points out of its two post players, Steven Enoch and Malik Williams.
It came as no surprise that freshman Romeo Langford and senior Juwan Morgan did the most damage for the Hoosiers. Langford scored 21 points, including eight of his team's final 16, and added four assists. Morgan had 15 points and five rebounds.
The Cards led 39-32 early in the second half, but failed to open a wider gap when they missed seven consecutive shots and went scoreless for three minutes. Then, after IU grabbed its first lead of the day at 49-47 on a 3-pointer by freshman point guard Rob Phinisee at the 8:30 mark and the lead changed hands six more times, Louisville wavered down the stretch.
IU shot 54 percent (13-24) in the second half and finished at 49.0, while UofL dipped to 34 percent (10-29) and wound up at 38 percent, the third time this season it has been below 40 percent.
"We weren't what we needed to be in the second half to cinch the win," Mack said. "I thought when we didn't score there for a small stretch, we weren't nearly as good defensively as we needed to be both in the post and on the perimeter. In a couple of instances, that led to big baskets for them, and we've got to eliminate those, especially when we go through scoring droughts.
"Everybody goes through them and you've got to be able to weather the storm with your defense, and I thought we broke a little bit there. Give Indiana credit, that got them back in the game."
Phinisee, who finished with 10 points and six assists, put IU on top to stay at 60-58 with a wide open 3-pointer from the top of the key. A layup and a free throw by Morgan made it 63-58 with 31 seconds left and then the hosts finished off their first win in the last five games against Louisville with 6-of-6 at the free throw line.
The Cards did manage to make the final seconds interesting, though, after falling behind 65-58 with just 16.7 seconds remaining. Cunningham drilled at 3-pointer, and after Phinisee hit a free throw, McMahon was fouled on a 3-point attempt and sank all three free throws to close the gap to 66-64 with 2.2 seconds left. But Langford, fouled before IU could inbound the ball, made both free throws and Cunningham's 3-pointer from near midcourt at the buzzer wasn't enough.
Before Cunningham's earlier trey at 0:11.1, the Cards had gone four minutes without a field goal, giving the Hoosiers the window they needed.
"We had to be a little bit better in our execution and when the play breaks down we've got to do a better job of being able to get the ball reversed and not necessarily go one-on-one," Mack said. "I don't think anybody's doing it out of selfishness, it just becomes a lot harder fighting uphill on the road when you're trying to win games that way."
Indiana also did a better job in the second half getting the ball inside and keeping UofL out. With Enoch or Williams unable to establish a post presence, the Cards took a season-high 32 threes, hitting 11.
UofL still wound up with a 32-22 advantage in paint points, but that was due largely to 14 second-chance points to IU's zero. The Hoosiers got 16 points inside in the second half after managing just six in the first half.
"They got in there and we also couldn't establish much inside, which is why we shot so many daggone threes," Mack said. "Our big guys have to be better offensively. Steven's got to play much better or we're gonna be looking at more of these type of stat sheets. The ability of Indiana in the second half to get in the lane had a lot to do with how they were playing -- confident, downhill, aggressive -- but there were some blown (defensive) assignments too."
Two other areas that had been a strength for the Cards all season didn't pan out against the Hoosiers. UofL managed just 13 free throws, far below its season average of 31 and got only 15 bench points vs. their average of 38. Particularly disappointing was V.J. King, who failed to score in 12 minutes after getting 14 in the rout of Central Arkansas on Wednesday.
After a stretch of five tough opponents in six games, the schedule lightens up considerably for the Cards, who will play consecutive home games against Lipscomb, Kent State and Robert Morris before welcoming Kentucky to the KFC Yum! Center on Dec. 29.
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.