Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009 | 2:21 a.m.
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Ryan Greene, Christine Killimayer and Ray Brewer discuss a busy day in UNLV athletics, including the hoops squad's resounding 76-71 victory over No. 16 Louisville at the Mack and the football team's sendoff to coach Mike Sanford and its 16 seniors coming in the form of a 28-24 come-from-behind victory at home over San Diego State.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been in the college game long enough to know when a loss isn't a total loss.
In his book, Saturday's 76-71 loss at UNLV fits in that category of the not-so-bad.
"We booked this game to get us ready for the road in the Big East as well as at Kentucky, because this, including the Big East, is one of the toughest places to play in America."
It was the first road test for his squad, which entered the day's action ranked No. 16 in the nation.
The Cardinals both passed and failed.
After trailing by as many as 19 points early in the second half, Louisville came back to tie things up twice, including a 64-64 deadlock with 4:24 to play.
To that point, Pitino's club had scaled the mountain, coming back against a sticky defensive team in front of 14, 390 constantly screaming fans. But once it reached the peak, Louisville tumbled right back down.
UNLV's Oscar Bellfield hit a jumper to put his team back up on top, 66-64, then came a possession which Pitino harped on repeatedly in front of the media following the game.
Amidst confusion in the backcourt, Bellfield jumped a passing lane and took the ball to the other rim, where he was fouled hard by freshman guard Peyton Siva while trying to slam home two emphatic points. He instead hit two free throws a possession later after missing that pair, and UNLV never looked back.
"I was proud of that comeback because this is not an environment where you get too many comebacks," Pitino said. "It was a valiant effort coming back. When we did come back and tie the score, four guys knew the play and one guy didn't, and it really hurt us.
"That's the inexperience of this basketball team. They've got to pay attention in timeouts, pay attention in huddles. It cost us."
Aside from the attention to detail, interior defense also stuck out in Pitino's mind as he broke down just what went wrong.
Despite Louisville's overall length and wealth of size inside, UNLV was able to keep the Cardinals in foul trouble for much of the game, scored 34 points in the paint and scored 10 points in second-chance fashion.
"They're worried about foul trouble too much in coming out than they were about stopping people," Pitino said.
It's a safe bet that Louisville will bounce back well from Saturday's letdown, as the Cardinals play eight home games and none away from Freedom Hall in the month of December.
In that stretch, they host Stetson on Wednesday, followed by Charlotte, Western Carlolina, Oral Roberts, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette, Radford and South Florida.
After that, though, begins the tougher portion of the slate, starting with a trip down the road to face Kentucky in Lexington on Jan. 2. That's followed by a vicious conference schedule in the Big East, which year-in and year-out is college basketball's deepest league.
"I hate losing, but I really liked the game. It'll be beneficial for us," he added. "We lost last year to Western Kentucky and it wasn't beneficial to us. This was beneficial."
In essence, Pitino hopes his team will mirror UNLV in a way when the calendar switches into 2010.
He pointed out that younger, inexperienced teams typically don't play sound defense on a regular basis. And while four of Louisville's starters had experience playing heavy minutes early in games a year ago, the rest of Pitino's rotation must come around.
"They're really a good basketball team that's gonna get better and better because they're deep," Pitino added. "We've played them before where they're not quite as deep, now they can get those guys to play that kind of defense, get some subs in and they can come back and still play great defense.
"I like all their guys. I like teams that play hard, so I like all their guys. I like Lon's system, I like how hard they play, and the main thing is they don't embrace this victory, then go on the road and lose. Because the arrogance of success sometimes, you think you're good, you lose the next game, then it wasn't worth beating Louisville. You just have to stay humble, which I know they will, and they'll just get better and better."