LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville's need for a lift against George Mason led Darius Perry and Jordan Nwora to put aside freshman nerves and contribute.
The duo responded with poise and clutch baskets that rallied the No. 16 Cardinals as they started a new phase without longtime coach Rick Pitino.
Deng Adel had 20 points, while Perry and Nwora combined for 22 in the second half to lead Louisville past George Mason 72-61 on Sunday and win David Padgett's debut as the Cardinals' interim coach.
"We've been transitioning," 7-foot senior Anas Mahmoud said of not seeing Pitino on the sideline. "We understand we don't have coach P on the sideline, but we also realize coach Padgett is more than capable in leading us where we need to go."
Coming back took a lot for Louisville, which appeared tentative for nearly 30 minutes in its first regular season contest since Pitino was fired last month in the wake of a national federal investigation of corruption in college basketball . Even when the Cardinals edged ahead 49-46 with 9:13 remaining, they weren't able to gain room against the determined Patriots until the final minutes.
Louisville shot 70 percent from the field and from long range in the second half to earn a hard-fought win. The outcome allowed an admittedly nervous Padgett to take a deep breath — for now— as the Cardinals officially began moving forward from the investigation.
"I was anxious. I think our guys had some nerves too," the former assistant said. "I'm glad it's out of the way now. More importantly, we're 1-0."
Credit Perry and Nwora for showing resolve when the Cardinals needed it.
The Cardinals shot 29 percent in the first half and trailed 46-40 with 12 minutes left before senior Quentin Snider scored four points and Adel added a basket to tie the game. Nwora then made a left-corner 3-pointer before Perry followed from long range for a 52-49 edge.
Nwora later made two more from behind the arc while Adel, a junior, added one for a 66-59 Louisville lead with 1:52 left.
Perry and Nwora made all six of their combined shots. Perry scored 12 of his 17 points after halftime, while Nwora was 3-for-3 from long range for 10 points. Adel meanwhile went 9 of 17 from the field to help the Cardinals win before 18,304.
"My first minute I was like, shaking a little bit," Nwora said. "But then I was alright. Then, in the second half I just focused on defense. Once I did that, the offense just came to me."
Jaire Grayer had 20 points and Justin Kier 18 for George Mason (1-1), which led 46-45 with 11 minutes remaining before Louisville took control.
"I thought we played with quite a bit of composure," George Mason Dave Paulsen said. "Our guys battled. To only give up seven offensive rebounds to that group is really great. (If) we had a couple open looks to go down, a couple free throws to go down and it might be a different result."
George Mason: The Patriots pushed the pace throughout and weren't afraid to challenge the taller Cardinals inside. Perimeter shooting was their biggest strength (8 of 27 from long range), but they struggled to keep pace once Louisville started making shots to seize momentum. Ian Boyd had 12 points.
Louisville: The Cardinals moved the ball well and had good looks in the first half, but shots just weren't falling. They became somewhat tentative after that and it looked like Adel would have to carry the offense. That's when Perry and Nwora contributed, with Nwora's 3s coming every time they needed a boost. Louisville's 14-of-20 shooting, including 7 of 10 from 3-point range, after halftime was huge. It also won the rebounding battle, 36-31.
"We just started making shots," said Perry, who was 3-of-3 from long range while making all eight free throws. "We were getting good looks, doing what we were supposed to do. Playing inside to out. Shooting shots we were supposed to be taking. They started dropping and that's what really changed it."
Perry's 17 points were the fifth-highest total for a Louisville freshman debut. It also matched Padgett's total in his Cardinals debut on Dec. 3, 2005, after he transferred from Kansas.
George Mason hosts Binghamton in Atlantic 10 Conference play Thursday in its opening game of the Cancun Challenge.
Louisville hosts Nebraska-Omaha on Friday in the first meeting between the schools. It's the second of four home games to open the season before the Cardinals face Purdue in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
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