By Noah Allison–
Early in the season, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said this could be the year that a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Heading into this year’s tournament his Cardinals were the number one overall seed, playing a 16 seed North Carolina A&T team that won its first ever tournament game when they defeated Liberty 73-72 in the Midwest play-in game. If the Big Dance were an actual dance off, the North Carolina A&T Bulldog mascot could have made it a long night for Louisville fans.Unfortunately for A&T the game was decided on the court and the Cardinals stole the show, literally. In the Cardinals 79-48 victory they set an NCAA tournament single game record with 20 steals. Russ Smith led the team in steals with eight and scoring with 23 points.
Four minutes into the first half North Carolina A&T had kept the score admirable only being down 6-4. Then Pitino let the dogs loose, the Aggies struggled making it past the half-court line, the Cardinals forced them into 27 turnovers, had 67 deflections, forced a ten second half court violation and 35 second shot clock violation.
“We approached it as we cant take any team lightly, they are in the NCAA tournament so they did something right to get here, we have to take it one game at a time,” sophomore guard Kevin Ware said. “We go so hard in the summertime with conditioning and lifting that it gives us the upper hand on a lot of the teams we play. It really starts with defense and that’s all we go over in the summertime and around this time of year teams get a little fatigued with one game preparation and not a lot of time to rest and that helps us.”
When the Aggies weren’t being harassed by the Cardinals lightning fast guards in the full court, they were being dominated by Louisville’s size in the paint. Louisville had 31 rebounds to A&T’s 20 and had 44 points in the paint compared to A&T’s 16.
The Aggies did what they could to hang around and multiple times when it looked like the Cards were going to put the dagger in early A&T fought back, but the constant nuisance of Louisville’s defense wore their shallow rotation down. A&T didn’t get the contribution from the bench that is necessary when playing a team as conditioned as Louisville, U of L’s bench outscored A&T’s 22 points to eight.
In their second game of the tournament the Cards faced the top rebounding team in the country, and earned a victory that will launch them into the next round of the NCAA tournament, the Sweet Sixteen. Colorado State started five seniors and took the court as one of the most veteran and competitive teams the Cards have faced all year. Colorado rolled through Missouri winning 84-72 in their first game and came into the game against Louisville hot.
The Rams sank their first six shots from the floor and matched U of L point for point through the beginning minutes of the game. The game was tied at 18 when U of L’s defense decided to take over. By halftime the score was 45-31 in Louisville’s favor, and by the end Louisville had long ensured its 82-56 victory.
As badly as Colorado State wanted to control the pace of this game, U of L imposed its will on the Rams, forcing 20 turnovers, winning the rebound battle and outscoring Colorado State in the paint 42 to 14. Junior guard Russ Smith went 4-6 from behind the three-point line in the first half and ended the game with 27 points.
“They were shooting at a high percentage but we were turning them over,” senior guard Peyton Siva said. “Russ caught fire again. He loves playing here, so we just tried feeding him the ball and for the most part we did a great job at out rebounding them. We out rebounded them tonight and that was our main focus.”
It isn’t easy to rattle a team that has five starting seniors who can handle the ball, shoot at a high percentage and rebound at a high rate, but if there is one way to describe the Colorado State players halfway through their experience with the number one ranked team in the country, it was rattled.
“Coach said before the game, they only average 10 turnovers a game but that does not mean we can’t turn them over. I think they started to feel fatigued and that’s why they started missing free throws and turning the ball over. I think the whole team played a good game tonight,” junior center Gorgui Dieng said. “At this time of the year we don’t need somebody to just have a great game; we need the whole team to step up. I think everybody did their job tonight and that’s the way we need to play.”
The Cardinals won their both of their games at Rupp arena by over 25 points. Russ Smith had a combined 50 points in his two games there, making his case for changing the name to Russ Arena. Now the Cardinals head to Indianapolis for a Sweet Sixteen match up with No. 12 seed Oregon. Oregon is on a hot streak after winning with PAC12 tournament and hope to be the Cinderella story of this tournament after defeating talented Oklahoma State and St. Louis [email protected]
Photos by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal