By Jacob Kupferman —
When the Louisville men’s basketball team concluded its basketball season March 5, most Louisvillians turned their thoughts to baseball and football season, and most assumed the KFC Yum! Center would remain dormant for the next few months with the exception of the occasional concert or special event. Thursday and Saturday night’s Regional Semi-Final and Regional Final proved that to be false.
Louisville welcomed Miami, Villanova, Maryland and Kansas for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds of the NCAA Tournament this weekend. The excitement in the city was more than palpable as Main Street was flooded with fans of unfamiliar schools hopeful their school could win the two games necessary to reach the Final Four.
The Sweet 16 games Thursday night pitted Miami against Villanova in the first match-up, and Maryland versus Kansas in the second.
In the first half of the Miami-Villanova contest, the game felt as though it was going to be a nail-biter. Villanova’s shooting helped them jump out to an early 8-0 lead, but Miami responded with some runs of their own. The first half was back-and-forth for the entire 20 minutes, yet Villanova took a six point lead into halftime.
The second half could not have been more different. Villanova shot 67 percent from three, proving too much for the Hurricanes to handle. Unable to get a stop, the Hurricanes gave up 49 second half points, propelling Villanova to a 92-69 victory and a spot in the Elite Eight.
In the second game, a similar situation unfolded in the contest between Maryland and Kansas. The first half ended in a two point Kansas lead with Melo Trimble and the Terrapins right on their tail. The game was tight in the first half as the Kansas guards struggled to find rhythm.
The second half, however, was all about Perry Ellis and the Kansas bigs. The six-foot-eight Jayhawk senior carried Kansas with 27 points, and his front-court running-mate, Landen Lucas, posted a double-double. The inability to convert from three cost the Terps dearly as Rasheed Sulaimon and Trimble combined to shoot 21 percent from three point range. The top-seeded Jayhawks advanced with a comfortable 79-63 victory.
Elite Eight games have become an annual occurrence for college basketball fans in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, it’s just rare that they don’t involve Louisville or Kentucky. This year marked the first Sweet Sixteen with neither Louisville or Kentucky since 2007. Despite that, the energy in the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday night was electric as nearly 20,000 people flooded in to watch the game.
From start to finish, it was one of the more enticing matchups of this year’s tournament. Even though Villanova had a commanding ten-point lead, it never felt right to rule Kansas out. Both teams are led by phenomenal veterans and premier coaches, and it showed.
The entire 40 minutes of the game went back and forth with each team stringing together strong runs. Kansas relied heavily on its guards, as the three who started were the only Jayhawks that were able to make significant contributions in the points column. Kansas only played eight players all game, and only five of those eight were able to score.
Perhaps it was a great gameplan by Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright or perhaps it was simply an off night for Kansas, but at no point throughout the duration of the game did Kansas look overly comfortable. Villanova was incredibly consistent, scoring 32 points in each half and knocking down 94 percent of their free throws. They were able to force 16 Kansas turnovers, capped off by two clutch steals in the last minute.
Photo courtesy Aaron Doster / USA Today Sports