ORLANDO (WDRB) -- So this is how it was going to end -- not with a boom, but a whimper.
For the first time this season, and maybe the first time in a couple of seasons, the University of Louisville looked beat. Their body language was some kind of curse word. They were tentative on offense. They were hanging by a thread on defense.
At the under-four timeout, Manhattan led defending national champion Louisville 58-55, and there were few signs of life on the Cardinals sideline. Twitter was burning up with the message, "Get to TNT." Louisville was about to blow up.
Across the court, Steve Masiello, Pitino's former ballboy, player and assistant coach, was screaming. His team could smell the upset. He could smell the upset. He needed one more stop. He'd been the person who dictated this game, his intimate knowledge of the Cardinals' offense, defense and personnel so complete and his experienced team's execution of it so good that even U of L veterans like Russ Smith and Luke Hancock looked frustrated and perplexed.
One more stop. That's all Masiello asked for.
Then Russ Smith happened. The senior rose from the left wing, seeing his first clean look from three-point range all night, and he drained it. Tie game. Manhattan scored, but Chris Jones, in his first NCAA Tournament game, drove the lane and dished to Wayne Blackshear, a forgotten piece, who made a layup to tie the score again.
Then Luke Hancock happened. He saw a cross-court pass against the press was coming, and sprinted to stop it, corralling the loose ball and driving underneath to get fouled, making both free throws.
Louisville led by two. Then Montrezl Harrell happened. He blocked a Michael Alvarado layup, and Hancock got the ball in the left corner and pump faked. The defender jumped, Hancock paused, then fired from three-point range. Good. Louisville by five.
After another Manhattan layup, Hancock happened again. Another three, this one from the left wing, 28 seconds left, Louisville now up six, Hancock lifts his arms.
Ballgame. Louisville outscored Manhattan 13-4 in the final 2:34 to escape 71-64 against Manhattan in an NCAA Tournament game that ended at 1:03 a.m. Eastern time.
But the clock did not strike midnight on the Cardinals and their seniors, at least not yet.
"I was concerned the whole game," Harrell said. "They knew everything we were going to do. And not only that, but it's what they do. They play what we play. But in the end, you start to play with that fear in your belly, like if you don't get going, you might never put on this uniform again."
At midcourt, Pitino embraced Masiello, and then each of Manhattan's players. He has watched almost every game they've played this season, not as a coach, but as a fan.
And his first postgame words were about Masiello.
"I'm really proud of coach Masiello," Pitino said.
Not Steve. Not Stevie Mas. No nickname. Coach Masiello. Don't miss that.
"I told him he should be really proud of his team, and I told him I was really proud of his coaching, his preparation," Pitino said. "We've been together a very long time. His dad was one of my best friends. . . . It didn't matter to me what seed (we) got, but I was really disappointed I had to play Steve, because he had an unbelievable year. I thought he could win a couple of games in this tournament. That's how good. When Travis Ford and Billy Donovan and Steve Masiello and Sean Woods and all these guys coach, I sit at the edge of my bed and jump up and down like a cheerleader, so I did not want to play him at all. And that was the only disappointment, and it was disappointing -- I was very happy for our basketball team that we could move on, but very disappointed for him and his kids because they played terrific."
Pitino acknowledged it was an off-night for his All-American, Russ Smith, who jammed his left thumb in the first half and came out of halftime with it heavily wrapped. He said Smith tried to force the issue too much, didn't keep the ball moving, and even when he was getting to the free-throw line with wild one-on-one moves, midway through the second half, looked at his senior and said, "No more."
But still it was Smith with the shot that snapped U of L out of its familiarity-induced funk. He scored 18 points and had half the Cards' 12 turnovers. He also passed Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison on U of L's all-time NCAA Tournament scoring list, 14 points away from No. 1 Milt Wagner.
"We were just waiting for something to happen for us, for somebody to make a shot," Van Treese said. "The whole game, Russ was kind of in a drought, and that's not like Russ, and it kind of messed with our offense. Luke couldn't find much, they did a great job defensively, they never let us get a run. But when Russ made that shot, we got the spark we needed."
Was it the biggest shot of his U of L career? "I couldn't tell you," Smith said. "I'm glad it went in."
Was he worried? "I've been here a long time," he said. "I've seen plays -- Preston Knowles, Peyton Siva, guys bring us back from places you wouldn't believe. It's not over for us until the scoreboard says zeroes."
For Hancock, it was a second-straight NCAA Tournament game in which his consecutive threes have played a major role. He made four in a row in the NCAA championship game against Michigan. Masiello said that his team lost Hancock in the zone, and when he drilled a three to make it 65-60, "it hurt us."
Hancock's has been in nearly that exact situation before. Against Wichita State last season, with U of L leading the Shockers in the final two minutes by that same score, he hit a three to extend U of L's lead to five.
"It does help you, that experience," Hancock said. "Having guys who have been there, been through those postseason battles. . . There were so many guys who made big plays for us down the stretch, Wayne, Montrezl, Chris, Russ, everybody on the court."
Hancock is asked if he wants that big shot in that situation? "Absolutely," he answers, with a small laugh. "I feel confident shooting ball. I want the ball in my hand as much as Russ does. But it's good to be selfless, like Russ was passing the ball to me. We both want to take the shot, but we don't have to take the shot."
There were others to whom credit is due. Blackshear has been a forgotten player for much of the second half of the season. He hasn't been able to find his groove. But Pitino called him a key in this victory. He had six points and two rebounds, all in the second half.
Harrell was out of sync for most of the game, missing jumpers he has been making over the past several weeks. Still, he finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. Jones went just 2 of 11 from the field, but dished out three assists, had two steals and grabbed five rebounds. Hancock finished with 16 points, four assists and four steals -- matching his career high, which he got against Manhattan last season.
Manhattan's bench outscored Louisville's 22-8. The Jaspers outscored the Cardinals 38-32 in the paint and 11-6 on the fast break. U of L had a 22-9 edge in points off turnovers and a 14-6 edge in second-chance points. Manhattan made only three three-point shots, and attempted only five. U of L made only four, three of those in the final 2:38. Their 20 field goals matched a season-low.
"When we play against ourselves in practice, it's a nightmare," Pitino said. "We don't play well against ourselves, our style. And we knew it was going to be a carbon copy with them, right down to our out-of-bounds plays. It's almost a mirror image. And what really hurt us is when they kept going with four guards and opening up the court and taking us off the spread. He did a great job of coaching, him and his staff, and his players did a remarkable job."
For Pitino, close games against No. 13 seeds are nothing new. In 2012, Louisville edged No. 13 seed Davidson by seven. In 2011, Morehead State was a No. 13 seed when it beat the Cardinals. In 2005, the Cards beat No. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette by six.
"We needed a win like this desperately," Pitino said. ". . . Winning by 60 and 40 doesn't make you a better basketball team, and when a team's butts could get tight tonight, I told my man right down here (Hancock), if you don't shoot when you're open, and I said some other expletives, because they're going to come after Russ. Russ obviously had an off night, but when you see Russ play that way, it's because the defense made him have an off night. But Luke and Wayne played great. Wayne was an unsung hero, had to give us great minutes, great defense and did a superb job. We're really excited we had a tight, hard-fought win."
For Masiello and Manhattan, for 37 minutes, they were close to their Shining Moment.
"That Louisville team is terrific," Masiello said. "Coach Pitino did a phenomenal job. Those kids play so hard. They're just a class act across the board. I thought it was two good teams playing tonight, and I thought their experience being here showed a little bit down the stretch. I couldn't be prouder of my guys and what they've done for Manhattan basketball. . . . You give (Louisville) that one opportunity, they make you pay, and that's why this team is a defending national champion and top five in the country. They saw a crack in the door, they took advantage of it."
For a third straight season, U of L has won 30 games. It is 30-5. It has won seven straight games in the NCAA Tournament and 11 of its past 12. It has won 13 straight postseason games, and 21 of its past 22 in postseason tournament play. It will face Saint Louis on Saturday at 2:45 p.m. There will be talk that the Cards are vulnerable after their Thursday night scare. They might be. Harrell had an answer for those who say they are.
"It's better than saying we're out," he said. "We're still here."