Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009 | 12:06 a.m.
Ryan Greene and Rob Miech dissect UNLV's 56-55 upset win at No. 18 Louisville on Dec. 31, 2008, which the Rebels completed with leading scorer Wink Adams out of the lineup. René Rougeau and Tre'Von Willis both rose to the occasion in terms of production and leadership, while Oscar Bellfield provided the late-game heroics. The guys also give some New Year's resolutions for both the Rebels and themselves.
LOUISVILLE -- In the far corner of the posh Louisville men's basketball locker room in Freedom Hall hangs a giant poster.
On that poster is a wide-shot from the NCAA Midwest Regional final between Kansas and Davidson from March, played at Detroit's Ford Field. That will be the site of this year's Final Four.
Covering the photo is the 2009 Final Four emblem and a transparent Louisville Cardinals logo with the words "what are we playing for today?" on the bird.
In Wednesday's 56-55 loss at home to UNLV -- the Cards' second loss in three games, which dropped them to 8-3 on the season -- Rick Pitino's club hardly resembled what the poster indicates the team aspires to be.
And from an emotional standpoint, the Cardinals that graced the floor in the first half were the complete opposite.
"We had such a flat first half," junior guard Jerry Smith said. "We've never had a half like that since I've been here. The intensity wasn't there like we needed to have in order to come out against a great team like UNLV. Just got to give them credit. They played real well.
"This is gonna bother us the whole season, but you can't dwell on it."
None of the stunned and slow-moving figures in the Cardinals locker room could pinpoint a reason for coming out looking so sluggish, but several agreed that not hitting shots early on certainly kept the No. 18 team in the land from snapping out of it sooner.
Louisville started 0-for-11 from the floor, and didn't have a field goal drop through the twine until Preston Knowles hit a corner 3-pointer with 7:25 to play in the first half (Edgar Sosa scored on a goaltending call against DeShawn Mitchell two minutes earlier).
Until that three hit, the near-capacity Freedom Hall crowd had been sitting on its hands, not providing much energy for the team to feed off of.
But the Cardinals weren't necessarily holding up their end of the bargain, either.
"We just played terrible for the first 10 minutes," junior forward Earl Clark said. "I missed a lot of chippies I should have made. You can't do that to a good team like UNLV. That's just how it went. We played how we should have played after the first 10 minutes, but after the first 10 minutes, I think it was 15-1. We just can't dig a hole like that, not when you're playing against good competition."
Those easy shots never fell regularly for the Cardinals. They were only 16-of-54 (29.6 percent) from the floor. They came into Wednesday shooting 44.4 percent as a team.
Freshman Samardo Samuels, their leading scorer this season, was just two-of-six, while Terrence Williams went two-of-15 and Clark was four-of-11. That's 25 percent shooting from the Cards' three leading scorers.
Coming into the game, Samuels was shooting 55.9 percent for the season, with Clark and Williams firing at 47.6 and 40 percent clips, respectively.
And with that said, it made the mountain they were up against following a sub-par first half that much tougher to scale.
"We were going down the tunnel into halftime down 11," senior guard Andre McGee said. "But starting all over with 20 minutes less and you're down 11, everybody's got to pick it up.
"And we tried to. We fought a valiant fight, it just wasn't good enough."
Though as bad as Louisville shot the ball, the Cardinals credited UNLV's defense for the brunt of the frustration.
"Their defense doesn't really allow you to run your offense at all," McGee said. "It's sort of unorthodox. Guys are sort of front-facing you, they really don't have any vision of the ball, they just try to all-out deny. They really try to take you out of your rhythm."
Still, the Cards tried to spin some kind of a positive out of the fact that they did gain enough ground in the second half to the point where they held leads three times in the final five minutes (their only three leads of the game) and had a shot to win it at the buzzer.
However, ifs and buts won't get them far in terms of getting a season with lofty expectations back on track.
Next up is steadily improving in-state rival Kentucky at Freedom Hall on Sunday, followed by a vicious Big East schedule.
Six of their first nine league games come against seemingly sure-fire NCAA Tournament opponents in Villanova, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia and Connecticut.
"We've still got a long way to go and a lot better to get," McGee added. "So that's the good thing about it."
But can they go far enough to live up to the poster?