ORLANDO (WDRB) -- The game was not pretty. But the result was sweet.
After taking the fast lane to the Sweet 16 as the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, the University of Louisville basketball team has taken Route Canal to the same destination this season.
Wrestling a 66-51 win from Saint Louis wasn't exactly a trip to the dentist's office, but I'll put it this way: I took a bad step off a riser and likely tore some ankle ligaments before the Cards third-round game against the Billikens. THAT was less painful than the offense of both teams during some stretches of this game.
The Cards led 25-16 at the break. And all of a sudden, a team that averaged 87.8 points a game through its final two regular-season games and the first two games in the postseason now more resembles the gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight bunch that labored through most of last season.
But don't expect Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino to worry about aesthetics, not after the Cardinals' eighth straight NCAA Tournament victory punched their ticket for a return regional trip to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where they will face either rival Kentucky or Wichita State -- as the last team to beat the 35-0 Shockers -- on Friday.
"You're going to have to be the prettiest team in an ugly game," Pitino told his players before the game. And that they managed.
Nationally, the Cardinals seem to have picked up some skeptics after a seven-point win over Manhattan and a hard-nosed 15-point win over Saint Louis.
But stand back from the stat sheet for a moment. The Cards handed Saint Louis their largest margin of defeat this season -- larger even than a five-point loss to Wichita State and a six-point loss to Wisconsin.
More than that, the team's offense, panned when the Cards missed their first 10 shots of the second half, rebounded to make 10 of its final 17 shots and shot 48.1 percent from the field in the half, and 44.9 percent for the game.
So why are things looking so much more, well, labored?
Easy answer. In the tournament, teams are playing Russ Smith much better -- and he hasn't been responding to it as well.
Smith had seven turnovers on Saturday. For a U of L team that had single-digit turnovers in nine of its final 13 games heading into NCAA play, that's a major drag on the offense.
All those missed opportunities make it tougher to get separation, even when the Cards are playing the kind of defense they managed in their first two games. They had 19 turnovers against Saint Louis, a season high.
"Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player," Pitino said. "But he still has one thing left, and I tried to explain this to him at halftime. . . . All the great ones from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant, they don't try to score 20 points in the first quarter. Hey get everybody else the ball and they let the game come to them and the other team fatigues, then things open up. So his last lesson is to play like he did in the second half. . . . He doesn't get it. So we're going to give him shock treatment on Monday."
Smith said he just needs a bit of rest. He jammed his thumb against Manhattan, and says he's got a leg that's banged up.
"I was catering to my injury instead of worrying about the team winning," said Smith, who ripped off the tape around his thumb in the second half to try to get himself going. "We did a great job of responding, but that's Louisville basketball. . . . I need some rest, man. I'm tired. I don't know if other guys are tired, but I sure am. I could use some treatment and rehab."
For a second straight game, the Cards' got their timeliest shooting from senior Luke Hancock. The reigning Final Four Most Outstanding player had 11 first-half points and finished with 21.
"Russ just needs to play confident, play Russ Smith ball," Hancock said of his teammate. "He doesn't need anybody telling him anything. He's Russ Smith. He's capable of going out for 50 any night. That's the Russ Smith I'm going to see next game."
U of L started the second half slowly for a second straight game, and during its field-goal drought Saint Louis came back to take a two-point lead. But then the Cards gathered themselves, and Hancock said Saint Louis began to wear down.
"This was about the game we expected," Hancock said. "Nobody's blown them out. It was going to be a grind. When they came back and took the lead, we had a little concern, but our whole philosophy is to wear them out and be there at the end. And that's what we did. ... If no one is going to the offensive free throw line and just getting back on defense, I see that, and it gets me fired up. If a team gets too tired to go to the offensive glass, I get energized."
When asked why U of L players don't seem to wear down, Hancock said, "Coach Pitino's crazy."
The Cards held Saint Louis to 0-for-15 shooting from beyond the arc, and worked hard to limit Saint Louis' duck-in baskets underneath. As well, Pitino tweaked the Cards' zone.
"We went to a different type of zone, almost like a one-one-three, to make sure there were no bumps where they could pop out and get a three," Pitino said. "What we would give up at times was maybe a high-post pass. But we wanted to smother the three."
"You know, the NCAA, the one thing I've known throughout the years, being in this business, is people get very conservative, and they talk about ‑‑ I've always felt ‑‑ you hear the expression defense wins championships," Pitino went on. "A lack of offense keeps you from winning a championship. All these teams can guard. And it's really, really important ‑‑ we beat Michigan and Wichita State and the teams before that -- and we were a very good defense -- because of our offense. We didn't win because of our defense. Every team can play defense at this stage. So you've got to have great offense to win, and you've got to really execute and make free throws, do smart things."
The Cards got a significant contribution from Stephan Van Treese, who played the last line of defense with so much extension to the three-point line, and wound up blocking two shots and walling up to defend many others. They also continue to get solid play from Chris Jones, who had 11 points and three steals.
Montrezl Harrell had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Wayne Blackshear was 3-for-3 for six points off the bench.
"We knew if we weren't strong with the ball, that would lead to good things for Louisville, and that certainly played out from that standpoint because we weren't good enough with the ball," Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. ". . . Obviously, they've got a chance to repeat. They're going to be in the final 16. . . . They've got a very good team. They're solid. A solid team."
The Louisville postgame locker room was fairly businesslike. Asked why there didn't seem to be a more celebratory mood, Harrell said, "We're not in Dallas. What is there to celebrate?"
Russ Smith: "We don't celebrate Sweet Sixteens in this program."
"It's kind of a weird locker room right now," he allowed. "But I think everybody's excited. We're ready to go onto our next game. This isn't our goal. We're happy to be here and blessed to be here, but this isn't our end-all. We have bigger goals. We want to keep winning games."