PHOENIX — Almost 16 minutes into a first half rife with turnovers and errant shots, Louisville received some offense from an unlikely source.
Seven-footer Gorgui Dieng, who had missed his only two career attempts from behind the arc prior to Thursday night, caught a pass at the top of the key, recognized the shot clock was dwindling and buried an uncontested 3-pointer. The shot was improbable enough that it left Louisville coach Rick Pitino pumping his fist and grinning and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo reclining in his chair with his hands on his head and a pained look on his face.
Dieng had the confidence to shoot that three as a result of a conversation he and coach Rick Pitino had after a practice last week.
"He kept shooting threes and I said, 'It looks pretty good, Gorgui,'" Pitino said. "He said, 'Next year, I'm shooting a lot of threes.' I said, 'No problem as long as you make them.' When he made it [Thursday], I said, 'I thought it was next year.' He just smiled."
Dieng's unlikely 3-point shot was just one of several ways he contributed to Louisville's upset of top-seeded Michigan State on Thursday night. The 7-footer also blocked seven shots, grabbed nine rebounds and tallied 16 deflections, a team record according to Louisville's unofficial calculations.
Perhaps the most significant sign of Dieng's progress was the way he managed to avoid foul trouble, a constant problem during the 7-footer's first two seasons at Louisville. Michigan State's Draymond Green, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne took the ball right at him throughout the game, yet he was cautious in the first half, allowing himself to take more chances when Louisville needed it most.
"I'm trying to do the little things that help this team win," Dieng said. "They were trying to get me in foul trouble. I understand that. That's why I took it easy in the first half. Then in the second half I was able to be more aggressive."
The brilliant all-around performance from Dieng was exactly the development Pitino hoped to see from his Senegalese center when he opted to recruit him. Dieng was skinny and raw offensively when he came to Louisville, but he has improved as much as almost any player in the nation over the past two years.
"I said, 'Gorgui, you're going to improve a lot because I've coached eight years in the NBA, but you're going to have to bear with me,'" Pitino said. "I'm going to drive you like you've never been driven before. He said, 'What do you mean 'drive'? And I said, 'You're going to see.'"
Dieng has improved in so many areas as a result of Pitino's tutelage that it's hard to list them all. He understands the principles of help defense, he communicates better on the floor, he's more conscientious of foul trouble and he's always aggressive in the passing lanes.
The most unsung improvement he has made to his game, however, is a jump shot that he insists he's comfortable taking when open. Though his second attempted jumper missed so badly on Thursday that it led to an easy Chane Behanan put-back, Dieng says he'll take that shot again if it's available.
"[Pitino] said you can shoot threes until you miss," Dieng said. "I've got a green light right now. I'm going to shoot if I'm wide open."