Early exit or Final Four — Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he wouldn’t be surprised by either this season.
Well, how `bout another Sweet 16 for the Cardinals, a team the coach doesn’t compare with his best but refuses to give up on, either.
Terry Rozier had 25 points and seven assists, and Pitino coaxed the undermanned, fourth-seeded Cards to a 66-53 victory Sunday night over Northern Iowa in the NCAA tournament.
“Tonight, we played our best game of the season,” Pitino said.
The fifth-seeded Panthers (31-4) were a popular pick in this one, trying to recreate their 2010 victory over a different blueblood (Kansas) and make another trip to the second weekend.
But Pitino’s harassing defense that morphed from the 2-3 zone to man-to-man and back again made life rough on UNI’s best player, Seth Tuttle, holding him to seven shots and 14 hard-earned points.
Now, the Cardinals (26-8) find themselves in the Sweet 16 for a program-record fourth straight year, and in the free-for-all that is now the East Region, it’s silly to count them out for a third trip to the Final Four since 2012. Louisville will play eighth-seeded North Carolina State on Friday in Syracuse. A win in that one, and it could be Pitino versus Tom Izzo, whose Michigan State team is on the other side of that bracket.
Not bad for a team playing with an eight-man rotation — one that took a hit with the dismissal of starting guard Chris Jones last month.
“We had to rally around it,” Pitino said. “We have a short bench. But these guys don’t take a play off, and that’s unusual in this world.”
This was the grinding affair that pretty much everyone expected between two teams ranked in the nation’s top 20 in defense.
Except in Rozier’s case. He darted his way around the floor, finding open spots for jumpers, floaters and creating enough contact to get to the line nine times. His final numbers: 8-for-13 from the floor, 8-for-9 from the line, five rebounds and the seven assists, including two sweet alley-oop passes to Montrezl Harrell that put the game away.
“You see all these dunks. We see 15 of them at every practice, where we say, ‘Get out of the way or someone’s getting hurt,'” Pitino said.
Good as Rozier and Harrell were, Louisville really won this one with defense — the way it has been pretty much all season.
The Cards forced 10 turnovers and held Northern’s efficient offense to 39 percent shooting — nine points below its average. Pitino’s decision to start 6-foot-10 center Mangok Mathiang set the tone against Tuttle, who found little room in the post.
Panthers coach Ben Jacobson all but admitted he got outcoached by the man with 52 career victories in the NCAA tournament. After making four of its first six shots, Northern Iowa went 4-for-14 the rest of the first half and trailed by nine.
“We got off to a good start and found some openings against that zone,” Jacobson said. “But they made some adjustments, and I didn’t adjust soon enough to find some different ways to get Seth the ball.”
Northern Iowa’s last, best run started when Nate Buss made back-to-back shots to trim a 10-point deficit to six with 4:26 left. The Panthers got the ball on a breakaway and looked to have an easy bucket when Jeremy Morgan dropped a pass to Wes Washpun, who appeared unhindered on his way to the basket. But Wayne Blackshear came from nowhere to disrupt the shot, then Louisville went down and Rozier threw a lob to Harrell (14 points) for the first alley-oop.
“That was the big key of the game. Gigantic,” Pitino said of Blackshear’s stop.
About a minute later, Rozier and Harrell connected again for a jam and three-point play that pushed the lead to 11 and ended it.
The Cardinals, challenged on offense all season, picked a great day to have an above-average shooting night: 45.8 percent from the floor.
Blackshear, a senior, finished with 10 points to go over the 1,000-point mark for his career. He’s been on three 30-win teams. The only way he can make it four is if the Cardinals take the title.
Might not seem so impossible anymore.
“As a basketball program, we had lots of ups and downs this season,” Harrell said. “But we responded in the right way. We came together as a team tonight.”
Louisville: Freshman Quentin Snider, who made the winning free throws in the opener against UC Irvine, finished with 10 points.
Northern Iowa: Buss had 11 points. Tuttle also led the Panthers with seven rebounds.
Louisville faces North Carolina State on Friday in the East Regional.
Northern Iowa’s season is over.
SOURCE: The Associated Press