WASHINGTON -- Preston Knowles' head was hanging as he sat at his locker in Verizon Center Monday night, not long after Louisville's rally against Georgetown fell short, 62-59. Like his teammates, he had played a role in the 15th-ranked Cardinals' dud of a first half, and in the charge back into the lead in the second half, then its stumbles in the final two minutes as the 13th-ranked Hoyas held them off.
As a follow-up to Louisville's electrifying double-overtime victory at Connecticut two days earlier -- one that elevated the Cardinals, unranked in the preseason, to their highest poll position so far -- this was far from an embarrassment. Yet Knowles, Louisville's only senior starter and its leading scorer, couldn't find any satisfaction either from the unexpected overall showing (they are now 17-5 and tied for second in the Big East at 6-3) or the near-miss against Georgetown.
"We were picked eighth in our conference,'' he said. "I think we exceeded not our expectations, not our team's, but everybody's expectations for us. But we want to become a great team, and we have to sacrifice and do the things to become a great team.''
Knowles' reaction indicates that he heard and absorbed coach Rick Pitino's post-game lesson for his team: that he was "really, really upset with them," for a reason.
"We gave them a speech before the game about good to great, that good is the enemy of great,'' Pitino continued. "And I want them to understand that as you try to go up the ladder to become a good basketball team, you've got to hate losing. It's got to gnaw at you. You can't say, 'Well, that was unbelievable, what a great comeback,' be satisfied with the comeback and the moral victory. That's what an inexperienced team can be. It doesn't matter if you have great heart, you have to win the game.
"Don't tell me that you have great heart, don't tell me that you have great character -- you've got to win the game. Nobody remembers great heart and character. They just remember the win.''
Wins like the one at Connecticut Saturday, its most impressive in a season no one rationally expected from a team as young and depleted by graduations, early departures and defections as this one. It also was shorthanded Monday, with forward Rakeem Buckles still out with a broken finger, freshman Gorgui Dieng out for a second straight game with a concussion, and Jared Swopshire still not having suited up yet this season with a groin injury that needed surgery. Those three are 6-foot-8 or taller, leaving Pitino to start four guards against the Hoyas.
It all nearly didn't matter -- but in the end, Louisville wasn't able to recapture the magic in its second straight road game against a nationally-ranked Big East team. The Cardinals were sloppy and shot poorly in the first half, their lowest-scoring half of the year (trailing 22-18 at the break), then fell behind by 11 eight minutes into the second half.
But Louisville came back in trademark Pitino-coached fashion: with pressure defense and 3-point shooting. The full-court press flummoxed Georgetown (17-5, 6-4) just enough to take the ball away, and Knowles and his teammates started hitting shots, five different players knocking down six threes in the second half. The last came with 6:14 left, from Mike Marra, and it gave Louisville its first lead since late in the first half, at 54-53.
Yet down the stretch, Georgetown handled the dire straits better than Louisville. It didn't hurt that they starts three seniors, including guard Chris Wright, who scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half and was both as cool and hot as he had to be. His twisting, ducking scoop of a layup with 2:55 left tied the game at 55, and his free throws with 4.4 seconds left provided the winning margin and made Louisville have to hoist up a desperate three-pointer as time expired.
Amidst all of that, Hollis Thompson drained a back-breaking 3-pointer with 2:03 to go to put the Hoyas ahead 58-55, setting up off a perfect backcourt pick by another senior, Julian Vaughn. And junior Jason Clark saved his only two points of the game for the biggest moment, two free throws with 24.7 seconds left to maintain the lead at three.
This, however, was how Louisville handled the final moments, and it bears little resemblance to the multiple heroics pulled off in Storrs on Saturday:
With 4:24 left and with a gift of a chance to push their lead to four after a foul by Nate Lubick on a three attempt, Kyle Kuric missed two of the three free throws.
Then, with 1:25 left and the deficit at three, Knowles missed a three, got his own rebound, missed a runner in the lane, got it back after another Louisville offensive rebound and missed another three; eventually, the Cardinals got a pair of free throws out of their 51-second possession.
Finally, with the Georgetown lead at 60-57 with 24.7 seconds left, sophomore guard Peyton Siva, all but perfect in the clutch in the wins over Connecticut and West Virginia last week, brain-locked briefly. Siva dribbled around trying to find someone for a three, as Pitino jumped, waved and yelled just across the court from him, and with too much time having wound off, finally dumped it to Terrence Jennings for a dunk that cut the lead to one, and would've helped more much earlier in the possession.
All things considered, it was tough to be too harsh with Siva, who had a Jekyl-and-Hyde game, seven turnovers in the first half and one in the second. "I see him,'' he said of Pitino. "I tried to get off a shot, but when I couldn't, I just tried to get it to the big man down low while he was open. I tried to hurry up and score, but they're a good defensive team.''
Siva wasn't accepting compliments for pushing Georgetown to the end: "'Almost' doesn't count. We came back, it was a hard-fought game. But if we lose by one or by 15, we still lost. We could've had the game.''
Georgetown got it, and the reason was simple -- or at least it seemed that way for a team that had pulled off a scintillating road win of its own Saturday at Villanova.
"I think it's our players,'' coach John Thompson III said, reflecting on his team's fifth straight win, all in the Big East, to overcome a 1-4 conference start. "Poised group, went through a difficult portion (of the season) where we weren't making shots. We were getting good shots; they weren't going in. We're past that. We have a veteran group, a good group, unselfish.''
On this night, Wright pointed out, Georgetown kept its head about it when Louisville was pressing themselves back into the game. "We weren't executing as well as we wanted to. We just had to be patient and attack them,'' he said. "Their press is very aggressive; they don't sit back and wait for you to come to them. We wanted to be the aggressor on the press.''
It worked. Now, Pitino can only hope that the lesson of this loss sinks in for his team, which surprisingly has a chance to be a major factor in the Big East and the nation. The consequences are, as it's been proven by so many other teams, that it can sink as quickly as it can rise if it lets chances like Monday slip away.
"In this league,'' he said, "you really don't know where the W's are gonna come. You have to fight for every win.''