Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Worst Things in Life are Free: Cards Lose Heartbreaker to Pitt

It's often said in college basketball circles that games are won and lost on the free throw line. Memphis' 2008 NCAA runner-up squad can certainly attest to this adage, and relate to the feeling of handing a sure victory to an opponent on a silver platter. Louisville found out what that feels like today, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against 20th-ranked Pittsburgh today at the Peterson Events Center. Pitt had a 30 game winning streak going at the Pete, but the Cards had emerged victorious in their last two visits to one of the nation's toughest home court advantages. It looked for all the world like Rick Pitino's outfit would complete the trifecta, but the charity stripe proved anything but charitable in the game's final moments. Admittedly, I missed most of the game. Returning from a trip, I caught the start of the second half on the radio, coming home to pull up a chair in front of my laptop and catch the last 4 minutes of regulation on ESPN360. It was all I needed to see. The game was a perfect microcosm of Edgar Sosa's four years in red and white. High expectations and early success were followed by disappointment and failure. The NYC product played one of the best games I've ever seen by a freshman in the 2007 NCAA tournament, scoring 31 points in a thrilling second round loss to Acie Law and Texas A&M. What people might not remember is that it was a pair of missed free throws by Sosa that halted the comeback effort and preserved the victory for Texas A&M. After a pair of mediocre efforts in his sophomore and junior seasons, Sosa looked to be putting together his finest season as a Cardinal, improving his decision-making, his shooting, and his mental approach to climb out of Rick Pitino's doghouse. Today, however, showed why he will never be remembered with the likes of Reece Gaines, Francisco Garcia, DeJuan Wheat, and Taquan Dean in the pantheon of great Louisville guards. Sosa missed 4 of his 5 free throw attempts in the final 1:30 of the game. He missed front ends, back ends, and all manner of freebies, allowing Pittsburgh to come back and eventually force overtime. All told, the Cards were 1 for 6 over that fateful minute and a half span; Jared Swopshire, normally a stellar free-throw shooter at 83%, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with Louisville leading 68-63.

Make no mistake; the game's final minutes were in no way the sole fault of Sosa. Defensive miscommunications led to a wide open three from the corner by Brad Wannamaker that pulled the Panthers within 2, and the final play of regulation saw Jerry Smith commit a needless foul as Wannamaker tried to weave his way through a trio of Cardinal defenders in an effort to throw up what would have undoubtedly been a very, very low percentage attempt to tie the game. That being said, Sosa is one of just 2 senior starters on this team, and he has to step up and make a few from the foul line in the game's closing minutes. He's a 70% free throw shooter on the season, and if he makes even one of two on a trip to the line, the game is over, and those clutch shots by the Panthers become meaningless. This would have been a huge win for Louisville for a lot of reasons. It would have snapped Pitt's 30 game home winning streak and represented the signature win that the Cards so desperately needed to add to their tournament resume, which now looks pretty barren. Opportunities to beat ranked teams on the road, especially in the Big East, are few and far between, and you have to take advantage of them when they do come around. The loss drops the Cards to 3-2 in the Big East, with a road trip to Seton Hall coming up on Thursday, followed by a home date with Cincinnati. Both are winnable games, but neither would look nearly as good as this one would have. This was a devastating loss, and Sosa surely feels worse than anyone, but at some point he has to take this team on his shoulders and play the senior he supposedly is. Louisville wasted another stellar effort by Samardo Samuels, who made 12 of his 20 field goals on the way to a 25 point, 6 rebound effort. He was dominate throughout the game, and made several huge buckets down the stretch to keep Pitt at arm's length. Also lost in the heartbreak was a breakout game from Preston Knowles, who finally regained the sharpshooting form he had last year as the conference's best three point shooter and lost for several games after sustaining a thumb injury on his shooting hand. The junior from Winchester, Kentucky scored a season-high 21 points on 8 of 12 shooting, 5 of 7 beyond the arc, where he had been connecting on just a 27% clip to this point in the season. Once again, the lack of leadership that has plagued this Cardinal team throughout the season came to a head at the Pete. Sosa did have 13 points and 5 assists, but it's just sickening to watch him clank free throw after free throw with a chance to close out a huge W. Jerry Smith continued his anemic play, missing all 3 of his attempts from the field as he was held scoreless in 22 minutes of action. The senior duo have never shown the ability to lead their team and close out games, and nowhere was it more important than in this game today. I'm tired of trying to find silver linings in these deflating losses. It was a heroic effort for 39 minutes at one of the nation's toughest places to play, and Samuels continues to be a dominant force inside. At some point, the seniors will have to step up and take this team with them. Until they do, Louisville isn't going anywhere this season. It's time to step up, boys. Answer the bell or have fun in the NIT.

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