Overtime loss to North Carolina maybe not a total loss for Louisville basketball

Tim Sullivan
Louisville Courier Journal

Maybe it didn’t matter all that much. Maybe there’s a camera angle we didn’t see, one that would show how Sydney Curry could have committed a critical foul with an arm in his throat. Maybe in some parallel universe populated by infallible robot referees, Louisville still loses in overtime to North Carolina.

Then again, maybe not. 

Before and after cups of ice were flung onto the floor at the KFC Yum Center Tuesday night, the prevailing mood was righteous anger. Two technical fouls and one horrific personal foul in the last 70 seconds of overtime had exerted an outsized influence on the outcome of a game the Tar Heels won, 90-83. 

But though this made for a galling evening for U of L fans, it may also have been galvanizing. For all of the drama of recent days – an abrupt coaching change, the indefinite suspension of the team’s three-time captain – the short-handed home team had played valiantly and was perceived as victimized.

Sometimes, an agonizing loss is not a total loss.

“On paper, we are 0-2 against Duke and Carolina,” said Mike Pegues, U of L’s interim coach. “But in spirit, in heart and competitive spirit, in toughness and resilience, character and fight, I saw it all from our guys tonight.”

More:Louisville basketball can't overcome North Carolina, controversial foul call in OT loss

He was not alone. An announced crowd of 13,386 bore enthusiastic witness to a team that continues to respond to a coach whose name interim university president Lori Gonzalez still struggles to pronounce. With El Ellis coming off the bench to score 25 post-halftime points, the Cardinals recovered from a 10-point deficit to lead the game in the last minute of regulation and forced overtime thanks to an acrobatic come-from-behind block by Jae’Lyn Withers of a driving layup attempt by Carolina’s R.J. Davis.

Ultimately, this was not enough. An overtime scrum beneath the basket led to lengthy deliberations by the officials, a technical foul on Withers, a costly change of possession and two Tar Heel free throws. It was then that the cups of ice rained down from the aggrieved student section and about that time that a team en route to its seventh loss in eight games struck a sympathetic chord in its fan base.

“That atmosphere was raucous,” Pegues said. “That was unbelievable. The Yum has not sounded like that for our games the way it did against Duke and tonight in a long time.  I thank (fans) for their support.  . .

“The only thing we can do now is to go on the road and grab one at a time. Hopefully, when we get back, they will still be here supporting us.”

More:Louisville basketball's Malik Williams suspended for North Carolina game

Though it seems counterintuitive, Louisville fans are showing up in greater numbers and with louder voices in the midst of a losing streak than they did when the Cardinals were winning the first four games of their Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. Some of this is surely attributable to their gradual disconnect with Chris Mack’s coaching and to their eagerness to embrace something new. Some of it probably owes to the perception the U of L players are playing harder for Pegues and have continued to persevere despite the suspension of Malik Williams, their leading scorer and rebounder.

If Pegues’ position is only temporary, if he does not win enough games to be considered as a permanent coach, he has at least succeeded in bringing some estranged fans back to the fold. Accepting some of Ellis’ excesses as the price of his production, and helping Withers regain some of his lost confidence, he has added athleticism and entertainment value to a product that had often appeared to be in need of a jolt.

"We've had a lot of meetings in the last week and a half," said Matt Cross, who scored 13 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as an undersized stand-in for the absent Williams. "We're just trying to bring our own positivity. At this point, there's nothing to lose. Just give it all out on the court."

Maybe a U of L team that now stands 11-11 is destined for the school’s first losing season since 2000-01. Maybe its struggle has won it some sympathy.

Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, tsullivan@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714