LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville coach Rick Pitino gave his departing transfers some championship-quality bling and a video tribute featuring “One Shining Moment.”
Pitino had promised a surprise to honor their contributions in a season that won’t include the NCAA Tournament appearance they hoped for. Surviving some tense final moments in Tuesday night’s 56-53 victory over Georgia Tech helped make that postgame ceremony especially celebratory for the 11th-ranked Cardinals.
Chinanu Onuaku made two free throws with 30.9 seconds remaining and Damion Lee added two more with 10.7 left to end the game — and the home portion of his one-year Cardinals stint — on a high note.
“Shooters shoot,” said Lee, who made just 5 of 16 from the field but all three free throws for 14 points. “I pride myself on free throws. That’s one thing I’ve done all year, actually my entire career. … It was just another way for easy points.”
And Louisville (23-7, 12-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) needed every one on an emotional night in which graduate transfers Lee and Trey Lewis and walk-on Dillon Avare were honored in their home finales.
Onuanku’s underhanded free throws provided a 54-49 lead and loomed large as the Yellow Jackets stormed back with four straight points over the next 18 seconds. Marcus Georges-Hunt made two free throws after a Flagrant 1 foul on Ray Spalding while Adam Smith followed with a layup to create a tense ending.
Lee then converted the 1-and-1, bouncing the last one through for the edge that left the Yellow Jackets needing three points to force overtime. Smith’s 3-point attempt bounced off the rim, and the horn sounded just after Georges-Hunt grabbed the offensive rebound.
“When you get open shots, you’ve got to make them” said Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory, whose team entered with four straight wins by six or fewer points.
“We were down 3 and I thought we had two really, really good looks at the rim — two wide open 3s by two of the best 3-point shooters — so you’ve got to live with that.”
Charles Mitchell had 15 points for Georgia Tech (17-13, 7-10).
Onuaku had 17 points and 11 rebounds and Quentin Snider added 11 points as Louisville overcame blowing an 11-point, second-half lead to remain in the hunt for the ACC regular season title. The school self-imposed a postseason ban on Feb. 5 for recruiting violations found during an investigation of an escort’s allegations of sex parties at the team’s dormitory.
The Cardinals would have been a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but the ban quickly shifted their focus to making the most of remaining games. They closed the home portion successfully despite shooting 36 percent and being outrebounded 42-35, offsetting that with 12-of-15 shooting from the line.
Including two big ones from Onuaku.
“The last prayer I said was, ‘Please, Nanu, make those two free throws,’” Pitino said. “He worked on it and swished it twice.”
Lee then sealed it before the ceremony in which Louisville’s departing players were recognized on the big screen. Pitino then presented Lee and Lewis with the rings and called the duo “championship people,” his way of thanking them for leading the Cardinals on and off the court.
Both players were caught off guard by the gesture.
“I had no idea,” Lee said. “I thought it was going to be a half banner (that said) half-Lee, half-Lewis. That was my creative thinking. The ring, I had no idea. I’m definitely going to wear it.”
Georgia Tech committed 17 turnovers leading to 15 Louisville points. … The Yellow Jackets shot 37 percent from the field.
Louisville missed its first 10 3-point attempts before Lee made one with 13:46 remaining to go over 2,000 career points combined at Drexel and Louisville. … The Cardinals were 2 of 17 from long range. … Lewis finally scored on a free throw midway through the second half. … Lewis and Lee will play in the NABC College All-Star game during Final Four weekend.
Georgia Tech hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Louisville visits No. 4 Virginia on Saturday.