LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As is tradition on Senior Day, Louisville coach Rick Pitino took the microphone after his team’s final regular-season game had ended to introduce his departing players. First, though, Pitino had a question for the crowd.
“How about Mangok?” he said, and then repeated it. “How about Mangok?”
March often creates unlikely heroes, and the madness began a little early with one of the most stunning games of the season. Mangok Mathiang hit a game-winning, 16-footer with 2.7 seconds left as No. 16 Louisville knocked off No. 2 Virginia 59-57 on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.
That’s the same Mathiang who had scored eight total points and made one field goal since Jan. 31. The same Mathiang who had not taken a shot in the first 39 minutes against the Cavaliers. The same guy who Pitino had told early this season that he couldn’t play college basketball unless he learned how to make an open jumper near the foul line.
“I think he was their fifth option,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “He’s who we wanted to take the shot.”
Mathiang smiled and nodded when later told of Brogdon’s comments. Pitino joked Mathiang was the team’s “64th option.”
Coming out of a timeout with nine seconds left and trailing 57-56, Louisville’s plan was to use guard Terry Rozier off a ball screen. Rozier would either get to the rim and draw a foul or shoot an open jumper. Or he’d dump the ball inside to Montrezl Harrell. Or maybe he’d find Wayne Blackshear on the wing.
Virginia knew the ball screen was coming, and forward Darion Atkins said he told teammate Mike Tobey to double-team Rozier before he could penetrate. That’s exactly what he did, which left Mathiang all alone.
“We couldn’t have played that last play any better,” Atkins said.
Mathiang has been part of a highly disappointing center rotation for the Cardinals this season. After starting 14 games as a freshman on last year’s American Athletic Conference champions, his playing time has dwindled as a sophomore. Yet he somehow found the confidence to take the shot as Tobey tried desperately to recover.
Rozier admitted he said a little prayer when one of his best friends on the team let the ball go.
“I wasn’t even thinking about anything but making that shot,” Mathiang said. “At first, I didn’t even think I made it. I was just shocked and running back. And then when Montrezl came and gave me a big hug and my teammates surrounded me, I was like, ‘Yo, this is a really big deal.’”
In the big picture, this probably mattered much more to Louisville than it did to Virginia. The Cardinals secured a double-bye in next week’s ACC tournament, thereby avoiding having to play Wednesday. Maybe more importantly, they proved they can beat a good team without guard Chris Jones, who was dismissed two weeks ago.
The Cavaliers (28-2, 16-2 ACC) already had the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament locked up. Saturday’s loss shouldn’t affect their standing as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, unless they lose early next week in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But Virginia must stop some troubling trends that have bubbled up of late. For the second straight game, the Cavs found themselves in a big hole early. On Monday against Syracuse, they scored only one basket for the first 13 minutes. Against Louisville, they trailed 19-5 and allowed more open looks and transition points than they usually give up in a week.
The Cardinals, who mustered just 13 first-half points Feb. 7 in Charlottesville, led 30-25 at the half on Saturday and became just the fifth team all season to score 30 points in the first 20 minutes against the nation’s top-scoring defense.
“I chalk this up to us coming out the wrong way defensively in too many games lately, and finally, one got away from us,” Atkins said. “We didn’t come out mentally prepared.”
Virginia has been surviving without guard Justin Anderson, who'd missed the previous seven games with a broken finger and whose potential comeback Saturday was spoiled by an appendectomy. Head coach Tony Bennett said he still doesn’t know if Anderson will be back for the ACC tournament or the start of the NCAA tournament.
The Hoos could have used him on a night when another starter ended up hobbled, as big man Anthony Gill injured his gluteus muscle during the second half.
Yet even with all those issues and an arena charged for the upset, Virginia still is hard to kill. It rallied from eight points down in the final six minutes, and if not for Mathiang’s dagger, we’d be talking about Brogdon’s clutch, go-ahead 3-pointer in the corner with 13 seconds left.
Still, the Cavs were more concerned with the lackluster beginning of the game than the ending.
“From here on out, it’s one-and-done,” Bennett said. “That’s what I told the team. I can live with this, but you’ve got to get ready from start to finish.”
Virginia can take solace in this fact: Last year’s national champion, Connecticut, lost in the same building on Senior Day by an embarrassing final score (81-48) before making its improbable run.
Weird things happen in March. Sometimes, even Mangok Mathiang happens.