Result: Louisville, 80-72 in 77 possessions
Seminal Play: With 8:27 to play, Cardinals guard Jerry Smith knocked down a three-pointer from the corner to put Louisville up 60-56. On the ensuing Providence inbounds pass, Smith stole the ball from guard Brian McKenzie and knocked in a layup that gave the Cardinals their largest lead of the game to that point. It was a quick five-point swing that served to put Louisville in control, and though Providence hit a three-pointer on its next possession, the Friars would not seriously challenge the Cardinals' newfound lead for the remainder of the game.
“We had six turnovers in the first half, we had eight in the second half. Those two [extra] you get cost you the basketball game. They turned the one into an easy basket,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said.
Quotable: “He does so many great things. I've had as much fun coaching him as [I've only had coaching] two or three other players, as I look down [the years]. When you get Billy Donovan, Jamal Mashburn, David Padgett, they all had the emotional IQ, the academics, and the basketball, and it's fun coaching guys like that—they don't come too often. They're all about team, and winning, and if you find those guys, you're going to be successful, but it's not easy to find guys like that who just think about the team.”
—Louisville coach Rick Pitino, on Cardinals' senior center David Padgett.
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—On a day when the two other top teams in the Big East both struggled badly on the road, Louisville showed why it might just be the best of the bunch at the conference's fore. Trailing midway through the second half, the Cardinals coolly pulled away in the final 10 minutes Saturday afternoon to dispatch Providence 80-72 at the Dunkin' Donuts center, the team's fifth straight win.
With first-place Georgetown having already fallen at Syracuse, and third-place Connecticut needing a final-second shot in overtime to beat the lowly Bulls in South Florida, the Cardinals (20-6, 10-3 Big East) moved into a tie for the top Big East spot with the Hoyas by avoiding a similar letdown in their road contest. Louisville won its third straight conference road game, and provided further evidence for the team's case that it is the best squad in the Big East, and a prime candidate for the Final Four.
“We lost to a team that's most likely going to be right there to go to the Final Four,” Friars coach Tim Welsh said. “Louisville's got a lot of answers—that's the problem [for us].”
Providence (13-12, 4-9) played well for three quarters of the game, but down the stretch Louisville's superior talent and skill proved too large a barrier for the Friars to overcome. Providence's high-water mark came with 9:34 to play in the game, when a long rebound off a missed three-pointer by Cardinals forward Terrence Williams ignited a Friars fast break, which ended in a driving dunk by guard Weyinmi Efejuku that put Providence up 56-53.
From that point forward, Louisville went on a 9-0 run which changed the game's tide. Forwards Earl Clark and Williams hit consecutive two-point jumpers, and then Clark, by himself, produced the critical sequence. He nailed a three-pointer from the corner, stole the inbounds pass, and converted a layup that put the Cardinals ahead 62-56 with 8:15 to play.
Providence would cut it down to 67-63 at the three minute mark, but David Padgett, Louisville's 6'10 senior center, would ensure that his squad closed out the Friars. After a timeout, the Cardinals threw it to Padgett in the post, who sensed an imminent double team and dished to Clark beyond the arc for an open three. Providence center Randall Hanke made a layup on the next possession to cut it back down to five, but Padgett answered right back—Clark returned the favor by giving his big man a good feed down low, and the center converted a reverse layup while getting fouled. Padgett's made free throw pushed the score to 73-65 with 1:43 left and closed the books on Providence's attempted comeback.
“He does things like that in crunch time to help you,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of Padgett. ““When you pick up the stat sheet and you look at David Padgett's numbers, it truly [doesn't transmit] the appreciation for what he does for a basketball team. He's to us what Roy Hibbert is to Georgetown—the offense goes better [when it goes through him].”
Padgett finished with 11 points on 3-of-3 from the floor and 5-of-7 from the line, and also contributed six rebounds and four assists. The Cardinals put forth a well-balanced effort on offense, as Williams and Clark also had four assists, while fellow-starter Andre McGee had three.
“We don't rely on a true point situation—that's not us,” Pitino said. “[Williams], Earl [Clark]—they can all pass.”
On the defensive side of the ledger, Louisville held a good Providence offense to a 40 eFG%, even better than the 43.1 opponents had put up against the Cardinals entering the game. Louisville went to its characteristic full-court press whenever the Friars inbounded under their own basket throughout the game, making Providence, and forward Geoff McDermott, work hard to get the ball across the timeline.
“We tried to pressure because McDermott has to do so much in their offense—[he's] like a point forward,” Pitino said. “We tried to pressure him and try to wear him out, and maybe [then] he wouldn't shoot a big percentage, because he's such a big factor.”
Because the Cardinals began making more shots in the second half—Louisville was down 40-39 at halftime after shooting 13-of-33 in the opening period, but hit 16-of-30 shots after the break—the team generated more opportunities to harass Providence in the backcourt. This pressure seemed to wear down the Friars' ball handlers. McDermott, the linchpin of Providence's offense, shot only 1-of-6 and had three turnovers in the second half.
Clark led the Cardinals with a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds, while McDermott finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Friars, and Providence guard Jeff Xavier chipped in 11 points and nine boards. The Friars, who entered the game averaging 21.5 three-point attempts in conference play at a 35 percent conversion rate, were limited to 6-of-18 from deep despite the game's unusually high number of possessions--it played out in 10 more trips than the predicted pace of 67--as Pitino's defensive strategy was to force Providence to drive into the Cardinals' stiff interior defense rather than be comfortable in playing to its offensive strength on the perimeter.
Louisville will now return home to play Syracuse on Monday, another team that, like the Friars, plays a good deal of zone defense. Providence has another Big East behemoth looming on the schedule, as Georgetown will visit the Dunkin' Donuts Center on Monday evening.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.