ORLANDO, Fla. -- For more than 36 ½ minutes on Thursday night, it seemed as if No. 13 seed Manhattan knew exactly what defending national championship Louisville was going to do.
When the Cardinals tried to find shooters on the wing, the Jaspers were there to cut them off.
When Louisville tried to toss the ball inside, Manhattan’s swarming defenders surrounded the post players.
“We played the best we could,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “Manhattan knew us and anticipated everything we were going to do. They played a perfect game and couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Led by coach Steve Masiello, who played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville, the Jaspers wrote the perfect script, putting the Cardinals on the ropes time and again in the second half of a Midwest Region second-round game at Amway Center. But while Manhattan had the perfect game plan, the Cardinals had the better leading men.
Smith and fellow senior Luke Hancock scored 14 of the Cardinals’ final 16 points, helping them erase a late deficit in a 71-64 victory. Louisville advanced to play No. 5 seed Saint Louis in Saturday’s third round.
“It was big,” Hancock said. “Nobody wants to go home on the first day. We’re trying to build a legacy. This is another step and it would have been tough to go home tonight.”
Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half and fell behind 58-55 with less than 3 ½ minutes to go. But then Smith, who bruised his thumb early in the first half, made a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the score at 58. He scored 18 points on 3-for-9 shooting, with 11 points coming at the foul line.
“I finally got open after 36 minutes of stifling defense,” Smith said. “I’m just happy winning. I wasn’t trying to do too much, but I also didn’t want to lose. For me to get a look like that and knock it down, after Manhattan defended me so well, was pretty big.”
After the Jaspers went back in front 60-58 on Tyler Wilson’s layup with 2:34 to go, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear made a bank shot to tie the score at 60. Then Hancock stole an ill-advised, cross-court pass in Manhattan’s backcourt and was fouled driving to the rim. He knocked down two foul shots, and then drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Louisville a 68-62 lead with 27.2 seconds to play.
“We just played a great team and needed a couple of bounces to go our way,” Hancock said. “Luckily, I found myself open in that matchup zone they run so well. I got two good looks at the end and they went in.”
Hancock, who was the Most Outstanding Player of last season’s Final Four, scoring 22 points in the Cardinals’ 82-76 win over Michigan in the championship game, wasn’t aggressive enough early in Thursday’s game, according to Pitino. Hancock finished with 16 points on 4-for-10 shooting, going 2-for-5 on 3-pointers.
“He was passing up some shots, and we need him to shoot the ball,” Pitino said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t shoot the ball when you’re open,’ and then I said some other expletives. But I said, ‘You shoot that ball because they’re all going to come after Russ. Russ obviously had one of his off nights, and when you see Russ play that way, it’s because the defense made him have an off night. I knew they would do it to him.”
The Cardinals got everything they needed from their stars when it mattered most.
“Coach Masiello was one of the designers of our defense,” Smith said. “It was very frustrating because he knew everything we wanted to run. Every opponent scouts you, but it’s different when they run the same system. They knew the counter to our counter.”
But the Jaspers had no answer for Louisville’s one-two punch at the end.
“We needed this type of game,” said Pitino, who was pleased his team did not tense up. “Winning by 60 and 40 doesn’t make you a better basketball team.”