The Louisville Cardinals continued their improbable run through March Madness with a 75-65 win over North Carolina State on Friday. The fourth seeded Cardinals play seventh seeded Michigan State today at 2:20 PM EST in the East Region final.
Even loyal Louisville fans find it a bit surprising their team is playing so well. NC State beat Louisville 74-65 at the Yum! Center on Feb. 14. This was part of an ugly close to the season. The Cards dropped a game to Virginia the week before, then lost by double digits to Syracuse, Notre Dame, and exited the ACC tournament in their first game with a 10-point loss to North Carolina.
Complicating the cohesive structure of the team was the dismissal of Louisville’s starting point guard, Chris Jones, amid allegations of rape charges.
A long run in the NCAA tournament was not something many expected of this bunch, but when the brackets came out Louisville was mercifully shipped away from Kentucky’s Midwest bracket to the East. They’ve played each other a bunch and no one wanted to see that again.
By going East the Cardinals picked up a bracket where Villanova was the top seed, who Coach Rick Pitino played yearly when the Cards were in the Big East. The two seed was Virginia, which Louisville beat to close the regular season.
These were teams The Ville could have a reasonable chance of competing against. The Cards aren’t huge, and they tend to not do well against teams with distinct height advantages. The other thing the Cards have generally shown all season is they can beat the teams they should.
This is Pitino’s 11th regional final appearance in 20 years as a college coach, and is some of his best coaching. Trailing 33-31 at the half in Louisville’s Sweet 16 matchup with NC State, Pitino clarified his frustration with this batch of Cardinals.
“We would be a hell of a team if we could shoot the basketball,” said Coach Pitino.
Louisville is a jump shooting team that can’t shoot jump shots. That is a hard way to roll. But Pitino’s Cards are gritty, in amazing condition, play great defense and never give up.
Pitino has been at this for a long time, and he knows how to develop a team. This time of year you need contributions from unexpected players.
At the 8:31 mark in the NC State game Wayne Blackshear picked up his third foul and had to come out of the game. That could have been it for the Cards without Blackshear’s leadership and scoring.
In came Anton Gill who was averaging 2.4 points per game and had not scored a point in the month of March.
Over a two-minute, 18-second span Gill scored seven points and was a big part of why Louisville is playing in Sunday’s East Region final.
This is what makes March Madness so contagious. Gill was shooting 34 percent from the floor and 24 percent from 3-point range and comes in the game in a pressure situation to hit three straight shots with the season on the line.
As irony would have it Gill is from Raleigh and North Carolina State offered him a scholarship.
Pitino has a way of bringing out the best in unexpected players at the right time. Two years ago it was walk-on Tim Henderson banging in two 3-pointers to ignite a comeback from 12 points down to beat Wichita State. In the regular-season finale it was Mangok Mathiang calmly dropping in a 17-foot jump shot to beat Virginia.
Pitino is one of the great coaches for a big game and prepares his guys throughout the season. Some put in the work in practice but don’t see much game action, but he instills confidence, so when they are called upon they can step up in pressure situations and deliver.
The entire team came up huge against NC State. Montrezl Harrell scored 24, Terry Rozier 17 points with 14 rebounds, and freshman Quentin Snider pumped in 14. Louisville shot 50 percent from the field while holding NC State to 38 percent.
This is not the same Louisville team that dropped those five games to close the season. It took a second to work out, but after losing their starting point guard, Pitino has replaced the scoring and found more reliable play between Blackshear getting more minutes and Quentin Snider stepping up like a veteran.
Michigan State will be a challenge. They are disciplined and Coach Tom Izzo is one of the best at exploiting weaknesses in his opponents. But again, Louisville tends to play well against teams ranked lower than they are.
Vegas have the Cards as 2.5-point favorites to win.
Here’s hoping Louisville plays amazingly and can advance to the Final Four. #L1C4