Chris Jones leaned back in his chair, shook his head and sighed, the hushed conversations around University of Louisville's locker room doing nothing to drown out his exhausted breath. "It's hard playing against yourself," Jones said. No, it wasn't a challenging practice. It was Manhattan, the No. 13 seed in the Midwest region. It was the unintimidated Jaspers, coached by Steve Masiello, U of L coach Rick Pitino's protege, who startled Louisville in its opening game of the 2014 NCAA tournament. For 38 gridlocked minutes, it was Manhattan that looked as if it had the answers, a win within reach against the defending national champions. But Louisville's final two minutes proved season-saving, enough to hold off Manhattan 71-64 in one of three thrilling NCAA tournament games at the Amway Center here in the heart of Florida. Louisville (30-5) now advances to play fifth seed Saint Louis in Saturday's Round of 32 game. They'll play at 2:45 p.m. on CBS-32. "They knew everything we were going to do," Jones said. "They beat us to every spot. It was hard getting into the paint. It was very difficult for us. "I'm lucky we have veteran guys." This was the 13th consecutive postseason win for fourth-seeded Louisville and the 21st win in 22 postseason games. No, it didn't come the way so many Cards' wins have of late. Louisville arrived in Orlando with a 12-1 record since Feb. 1, winning those games by an average of 22.5 points. "We needed it desperately," Pitino said. "I knew our stuff wouldn't work." Masiello, a former ball boy, player and assistant coach under Pitino, was coaching his first NCAA tournament game. His Jaspers (25-8) won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament title. He was furious when he saw that Louisville would be Manhattan's opponent in the program's first NCAA Tournament game since 2005. He couldn't lean on his mentor, Pitino, for advice, or thoroughly enjoy the fun of an NCAA Tournament trip. It was all business, he said Wednesday. Pitino said the same thing. On Thursday, both teams looked like veterans of the NCAA Tournament, with Manhattan unfazed by the cavernous arena or by Louisville, the defending national champion. Louisville thought Thursday's game might be an uncomfortable experience. Not only because of its close connection to Masiello, but also because Masiello's Jaspers play almost the exact same style as Louisville. Manhattan's guards avoided trapping areas and handled Louisville's pressure. Neither team ran its usual 2-3 matchup zone traps, fearing that they'd shoot gaps and leave space open for shooters, knowing full well that the opposing ballhandlers knew which passing lanes the other team was hoping to jump. Neither team turned the other over with its pressure. Manhattan lost the ball 15 times, mostly harried into mistakes in halfcourt sets. Louisville turned it over 12 times, and six came from All-American guard Russ Smith, who was out of rhythm all game. The passing, Pitino said, wasn't what it needed to be, and he hoped Thursday's win would remind Smith of his distribution duties as the team's lead guard. Smith, Louisville's leading scorer, couldn't remember when he hurt his thumb in the first half, but he played the second half with tape wrapped around his hand and wrist. He was 3 of 9 from the field, but made 11 of 15 free throws, scored 18 points and made a game-tying 3-pointer with 3:23 remaining. "We just had to fight through it," said Smith, who thought he'd be ready to play Saturday with the sore thumb. "Those guys can ball. All those guys can hoop."
Louisville dodges Manhattan's upset bid, 71-64
Louisville Courier-Journal | Mar 21