The reigning NCAA tournament champion Louisville Cardinals drew a tough Round of 64 opponent in the already difficult Midwest region in 13th-seeded Manhattan. An intense fight between two similar squads added to a wild evening of 2014 March Madness, but the No. 4 Cardinals prevailed 71-64 at Orlando's Amway Center.
Senior Luke Hancock scored eight consecutive points toward the end—draining his only two three-pointers of the game in the final minutes, on top of two free throws—to push the Cardinals to a Round-of-32 matchup with Saint Louis.
Explosive guard Russ Smith led four Cardinals in double figures with 18 points, getting to the free-throw line at-will throughout. One big difference-maker was Montrezl Harrell, who patrolled the paint for Louisville, blocking four shots, ripping down 13 rebounds and chipping in 12 points of his own.
While a lot of the outcome was decided near the basket, ESPN Stats & Info pointed out how crucial Hancock's long-range jumpers were in breaking his team out of a prolonged perimeter slump:
Louisville made one shot outside the paint in the first 36 minutes but made 3-of-4 3-pointers in the final 4 minutes to close out the game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 21, 2014
When it looked as though Louisville would separate itself in building a six-point halftime advantage, the Jaspers continued to hang around in the final 20 minutes. Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe felt that the underdogs would be worn out eventually with the pace the Cardinals established early:
Louisville's pace of play is ridiculous. Really impressed by the passing. Manhattan will be out of gas with 5 minutes left in the 1st half.— Adam Lefkoe (@AdamLefkoe) March 21, 2014
However, Manhattan showed surprising depth, deploying 11 players at various points in the game—and it wasn't as though this was just to get them on the floor in a blowout. That helped keep the upstarts fresh and competitive enough to pull off a possible upset.
Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead noted how heavily favored Louisville was entering the evening:
Louisville was a 16-point favorite tonight. Las Vegas had Louisville with the third best odds (8:1) to win the tournament per Vegas Insider— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) March 21, 2014
Perhaps the Cardinals shouldn't have been, though, given the familiarity factor at play in this one.
Jaspers coach Steve Masiello served as an assistant under counterpart Rick Pitino for six seasons and is in his third year at the helm for Manhattan. Something is evidently clicking in the Bronx, but it did help in this particular instance that many of Masiello's plays and concepts are a lot like what Pitino runs with the Cardinals.
Pitino remarked before the game about how Louisville had to change some terminology in an effort to throw the Jaspers off.
"Steve runs everything we run," said Pitino, per the New York Daily News' John Harper. "He presses like we press. His offenses are the same, his out-of-bounds plays are the same. We’ve changed all our plays and calls and defenses because he knows us so well."
The adjustments worked just enough to allow the Cardinals to advance, as Pitino continued to dominate his former apprentices, per the Gainesville Sun's Kevin Brockway:
Louisville coach Rick Pitino improves to 22-0 against former assistants, including 7-0 v. Billy D.— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) March 21, 2014
In the midst of Thursday's tight contest, renowned sports personality Jim Rome could understand why Pitino was apparently disgruntled at drawing Manhattan to start his title defense:
Louisville leads Manhattan by 3. No wonder Rick Pitino was so pissed about this matchup.— Jim Rome (@jimrome) March 21, 2014
With approximately five minutes left, Smith picked up his fourth foul, which took away Louisville's primary rim attacker down the stretch and harmed the Cardinals' offensive flow. Smith remained composed, hitting his only three-pointer of the game at a key juncture to knot the score at 60 with just over three minutes left.
That was a big momentum-changing shot, setting the stage for Louisville's final surge. Hancock got a key steal not long later, hit two free throws and drained the two back-breaking threes to eventually put the Cardinals up six.
Juliet Macur of The New York Times provided a fitting summary of the back-and-forth affair:
Thanks, Louisville & Manhattan, for the most entertaining game of the night. Louisville won, 71-64, but everyone played well & it was close.— Juliet Macur (@JulietMacur) March 21, 2014
Both the Cardinals and the Billikens had to bounce back after finding themselves in early holes against double-digit seeds in round two. It should be interesting to see whether Louisville or Saint Louis emerges from these adverse tests better equipped to carry on and fight for a Sweet 16 berth.
The all-around effort by Louisville's leaders in the clutch can't go unnoticed. Smith stayed active despite the late foul trouble, Hancock stayed patient after struggling for much of the night and Harrell fought hard inside to keep the Cardinals within striking distance versus Manhattan.
All of that bodes well for Louisville moving forward, and now it doesn't have to worry about facing such a good matchup in the round of 32 against the Billikens.