Nwora takes a back seat as Cunningham, Sutton lead Cards past Kent State

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Louisville basketball Chris Mack was asked during his press conference Friday if Jordan Nwora - the team's only double-figure scorer on the season - had become the Cardinals' go-to guy when they needed a basket at crunch time or were struggling offensively.


Mack didn't give a definitive answer, but everybody found out Saturday during UofL's surprisingly easy 83-70 win over Kent State (8-2). Everyone on the court wearing a Louisville (8-3) uniform is a go-to option.

 

For one of the few times this season, Nwora took a back seat to his teammates and became one of many in a strong supporting cast rather than the headliner and that led to arguably the Cards' best all-around offensive performance of the season.


Four players scored in double figures, another got nine, and Christen Cunningham and Dwayne Sutton both notched season-highs.


"Your main concern on offense, and it hasn't been the case with this team, is sharing the ball," Mack said. "So often teams fight themselves, don't want to make the extra pass, and that's not a sign of our team. It's really fun to coach when guys are hitting the open man. The go-to guy for us is the guy that's open, and we have to make decisions that find that guy."


Cunningham led the way with 17 points, hitting 5-of-6 shots, and Sutton had 16 on 5-of-10 shooting. Cunningham's previous best was 16 against Marquette, while Sutton's was 14 against Lipscomb Wednesday night. Amplifying Mack's comment about unselfish play, Cunningham and Sutton each had four assists.


Williams finished with 13 points, only his second time in double figures in the last nine games. And it wasn't like Nwora disappeared. He also had 13 points, hit 3-of-6 3-pointers and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. Nwora was averaging 18.2 points per game and had scored 21, 24 and 22 in his last three outings.


"Obviously, Dwayne, CC and Malik had a really good game for us offensively," Mack said. "We're going to have nights when Jordan scores a lot, we're going to have nights where guys pick up the slack because they put so much attention on Jordan, which I thought they did tonight, and we were very balanced offensively."


As the point guard, Cunningham is responsible for distributing the ball and adjusting Louisville's offense to take advantage of whatever the opponent is trying to do defensively. 


"Jordan's a big-time shooter, so if they're keying on him most of the time and helping on him, I can drive his way and use the other lanes to the basket," Cunningham said. "As far as how it changes my role maybe just some extra actions to try to get him free, and if not, just being aggressive trying to help my team score."


He said communicating a strategy to his teammates is imperative.


"No matter if they're keying on Jordan or Steve (Enoch) or Ryan (McMahon), whoever it may be I'm constantly communicating with them what we want to do, how we want to play and what looks are open."


Kent State coach Rob Senderoff referred to Cunningham and Sutton as "role guys or secondary guys" who are capable of rising to the occasion, as they did Saturday.


"They've got an elite player in Nwora, but the other guys all played well tonight," Senderoff added. "They didn't miss open shots, they got to the paint, they defended at a high level and they took us out of what we wanted to do in the first half. They guarded us more physically than anybody we've played this year."


The Cards took control of the game during the last nine minutes of the first half by outscoring Kent 26-11 to open a 45-28 halftime lead. The Golden Flashes managed only three field goals in the final 6 1/2 minutes of the period and UofL's run included two treys apiece by
Cunningham and Nwora. Then the hosts scored nine of the first 11 points of the second half to make it 54-30 and it was over.


"I thought the last eight minutes of the first half were as good as we've played on both ends of the floor," Mack said. "We got stops and we were pretty good offensively. I thought those last eight minutes were indicative of who we can be."


The Cards forced just 11 turnovers, but capitalized on them almost every time, scoring 18 points. They shot 51 percent for the game, including 50 percent from beyond the arc (9-18), by far their season best.


Although Kent's Jaylin Walker scored 28 points and hit 7-of-10 3-pointers, the Flashes' other major weapon, Jalen Avery, was limited to 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting. And both players were contained when it mattered the most.


After the pair scored 10 of Kent's first 13 points, neither got another basket the rest of the half until Avery hit a driving layup with 34 seconds left. Walker got hot in the second half after the game was already out of reach, scoring 22 points and hitting 6-of-9 3-pointers, most on difficult and deep shots.


"There are sometimes when you do everything you can defensively and a guy hits shots that you have no control of defending," Mack said. "You see it all the time at the next level, but rarely do you see it at this level, and Jaylin Walker, some of the circus shots he hit at the end made the margin a bit closer than I thought it really was."


Louisville will now play just one game in the next 13 days -- against Robert Morris next Friday night. Then comes the showdown with Kentucky 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 www.0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

 

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