Updated Wed, Apr 11, 2012 9:23 pm
Numerous times, Ohio had a rebound or a loose ball that would have ended a Louisville possession. Seemingly just as many times, Ohio lost the handle.
It had the lead its paws too, and the 'Cats let it slip away.
After charging to a six-point lead with 3:55 remaining, the Bobcats couldn't finish off the seventh-ranked Louisville Cardinals on the road and lost 59-54 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.
"I think that was the difference in the game," Ohio head coach John Groce said. "It was the plus-eight rebound margin…the stat sheet doesn't tell a loose-ball margin, and my hunch is they got more of those than we did. I thought that was the difference in the game because it gave them extra possessions."
Ohio was out-rebounded 42-34 by the Cardinals, including allowing 21 offensive rebounds. Six-foot-11-inch Gorgui Dieng pulled down 16 boards of his own.
This was perhaps the first true road test of Groce's tenure - at least since the last time Ohio played at Louisville's Freedom Hall in 2008 - as last year's game with Kansas was played in Las Vegas and 2009's match-up with Pittsburgh was played in front of a largely apathetic Peterson Events Center crowd. Even the NCAA Tournament games with Georgetown and Tennessee didn't have the crowd intensity that Louisville's basketball-crazed fan base infused into the Yum! Center.
"I'm proud of the way our guys competed," Groce added. "I'm proud of their effort, I'm proud of their attitude. I just wish we would have executed a little better late in the game."
"That's probably just a little bit of jitters…playing in front of 20 thousand," point guard D.J. Cooper said. "Nobody was scared but probably just a little excited and a little nervous."
With Ohio leading 51-46 with three minutes remaining, Louisville scored the next nine points of the game on two free throws, a Kyle Kuric (16 points) three-ball, a layup and a dunk (both off turnovers).
"They're disappointed right now, we're all disappointed," Groce said. "I think their players making big time plays was the difference."
Even after squandering the lead that it gained on the back of a 16-2 run (which spanned 4:28 seconds of the second half), Groce's Bobcats hung right with last year's Big East Conference runner-up.
It trailed 55-51 with under a minute to play when Cooper nailed his third three-pointer of the second half to bring Ohio within one. Cooper finished with 16 points after a scoreless first half.
Then, on the next UL possession, Cardinal guard Peyton Siva (who wasn't placed in the starting lineup by head coach Rick Pitino until minutes before game time), drove into the lane and bowled over Ohio's Walter Offutt.
It was the most important call of a very physical game, and it went against the Bobcats. Even though Offutt looked to be in good position, a charge was called, it was Offutt's fifth foul, and Siva made both free throws to extend the UL lead to three. T.J. Hall and Cooper both missed three-point attempts in Ohio's last possession and Louisville (5-0, AP #7) escaped.
"Those are hard calls," Groce said. "I was trying to put myself in the officials shoes…those are 50-50 calls. It could have gone either way. We have to trust his judgment and move on."
This Bobcat team, led by Groce's no-excuses demeanor, has never been one to play for moral victories, and Friday night was no different.
"We kind of gave the game away," Cooper said. "We had a bad few possessions at the end. Good teams like Louisville are going to capitalize on that.
"I’m disappointed, our players are disappointed," Groce said. "You know we didn't come here looking for a moral victory. We've gotta get better at finishing the game and executing better down the stretch."
Ohio (3-1) had stretches where it was completely cold from the field, including a 4:25 run in the first half in which Louisville jumped out to a seven-point lead and a nearly-three minute stretch in the second half where UL outscored Ohio 11-2.
The 'Cats held Louisville to 20-54 from the field and just 5-19 from three-point range for the game.
"I told our guys before the game this was a Big East opponent we're playing tonight," Pitino said.
Pitino added, about Siva's performance (four points, six assists, four turnovers), "I honestly felt we couldn't win the game unless we put him there. I didn't think we could guard D.J. Cooper without him in the game."
In a game that felt like a mid-season Big East game (read: physical), Ohio was called for double the amount of fouls that Louisville was (22-11). Many of those, however, can be attributed to Louisville having bigger bodies inside, not to officiating. Because of that foul number, Louisville got to the free-throw line 22 times to Ohio's eight.
Freshman Stevie Taylor showed no fear in the first half, scoring eight points to match Reggie Keely's first-half team-high. Keely finished with 11 points and six rebounds, while Taylor joined the big-man in double figures with 10.
Next up for Ohio is another road test against rival Marshall this coming Wednesday. Ohio split last season's series with the Herd.