LOUISVILLE — When Louisville's basketball team opened a 22-point lead over Akron early in the second half Sunday night in the KFC Yum! Center it was looking like another routine romp for the fifth game in a row.
Then the No. 2 Cardinals (6-0) started playing like a team for which things had come too easily during the last two weeks when their average margin of victory has been 27 points.
But thanks to some accurate free throw shooting — which was about the only thing they did right in the last eight minutes or so — they were able to hold on for an 82-76 win over the Zips (4-1).
UofL coach Chris Mack referred to his players getting a dose of reality and thinks it was a valuable lesson for them to learn as the schedule now gets tougher, starting with Friday's game against Western Kentucky in Nashville.
"We're thankful for the win," Mack said. "I know for a team that talks a lot about finishing, we didn't do a great job of that. It's very early in the season and I have to recognize there's a lot of growth for our team to make.
"It's not that I've been unaware, but we need moments like the second half to define a little bit of reality as to where our team is now. I know everybody gets hung up on the rankings. We have not earned that yet, just like every team in the country hasn't earned anything in my opinion.
"Because the sands are shifting in terms of teams getting better, teams adding players, losing players, teams going on winning streaks, losing streaks, figuring themselves out. For us, I hope that we're mature enough to not accept in victory what we certainly wouldn't accept in defeat. We have a long way to go."
All the drama was packed into the last few minutes. After leading 55-33 early in the half and 76-62 with four minutes remaining, UofL struggled both offensively and defensively the rest of the way, and suddenly Akron (4-2) was within striking distance of a major upset.
The Cards seemed to get caught up in Akron's furious pace, took some ill-advised shots and missed 13 of their last 15, finishing 9-of-27 (33.3%) for the half. Meanwhile, sparked by lightning-quick guard Christian Jackson, the Zips kept inching closer.
"On defense, we were still thinking about offense," Mack said.
After the 5-foot-8 Jackson had driven the lane to score on three consecutive layups within 14 seconds — yes, you read that right, 14 seconds — Akron was too close for comfort, at 80-76 with 17 seconds remaining.
"I've known Christian since I was in middle school," UofL guard Ryan McMahon said. "I played on the same AAU team with him one year and trained with him in the summer. So I know his game. The kid is so crafty, so shifty, so quick, he's a blur in transition. And when he has freedom and a green light like their coach gives him he can be dangerous. He's one of those guys like, dang, if he was 6-foot, 6-2, he'd be unstoppable. He's a helluva player."
After Jackson's last lay-in, giving him 20 points, McMahon hit two free throws at 16.8 and that was all the scoring as Jackson's 3-pointer rimmed out and the Zips missed three more shots off offensive rebounds as the clock ran out.
Asked what Mack's message was in the huddle during Akron's comeback, McMahon said:
"Pretty much the opposite of what ended up happening. He talked about finishing, not letting up, winning the last war, and we didn't really do any of those things."
McMahon acknowledged that the Cards had probably gotten too accustomed to hardly having to work up a sweat against much inferior competition lately.
"I feel like you learn more from these closer games," he said. "If we can correct the mistakes we're making it can help us down the road. The coaches weren't sugarcoating anything. They let us know that this team is much better than the teams we'd been playing. We believed them. I'm just disappointed with the way we kinda let off on the gas pedal once we extended the lead. That's when we've really got to stomp on our opponent's throat."
Nine players saw at least 8 1/2 minutes of action for Louisville, but the leading scorers were the usual suspects. Jordan Nwora got 18 points, Steven Enoch 17 and McMahon and Dwayne Sutton added 10 each. Sutton's game-high 14 rebounds, giving him 29 in his last two games, helped UofL control the boards, 48-36.
For Akron, Tyler Cheese equaled Jackson's 20 points and Jackson also had six assists and six rebounds.
"Our guys fought the last 15 to 18 minutes of the game," Akron coach John Groce said. "We played really well, as good as we've played all season. To fight back like that and to put yourself in position where it's a two possession game. . . if we hit one of those threes it gets real interesting."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.