SEATTLE (WDRB) — All season, the University of Louisville has won basketball games. It beat some good teams, and a couple of very good teams.

But it never truly showed that “spark.” I can't explain it. I've covered Rick Pitino teams in Louisville for 14 years. You can tell when they get that look about them. Heck, I can't even really adequately explain what that look is. I saw it after Louisville beat Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2012. I saw it after Louisville annihilated Colorado State in 2013. I saw it again in the second half Sunday night against Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament's East Regional round of 32.

Wayne Blackshear went crashing to the ground out of bounds after a loose ball.  And three teammates didn't run, they sprinted to pick him up off the court. Louisville wasn't losing Sunday night, and turned in its best overall performance of the season to beat the No. 11-ranked Northern Iowa 66-53.

With the win, U of L (26-8) advances to the NCAA's Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year — a first in program history.

How did it happen? Let's count the ways.

The sophomore guard scored 25 points, dished out seven assists, grabbed five rebounds and controlled the game on both ends. It was evident early on, UNI couldn't guard him. He made eight of his first 10 shots and had 16 points at halftime. But it was a controlled effort. There were no forced shots. And when the Cards went cold in the second half, Rozier made smart moves to the basket and got himself to the free-throw line.

He was only the fifth player to score more than 20 points against UNI this season.

Pitino has been using a simplified version of the 2-3 zone since the Cards beat Virginia in the regular-season finale. But on Sunday, he went back to the switching version. The Cards showed zone, but matched up against the shooters on the outside. They kept their big men down low and looked to run out at shooters.

“We talked about that a lot,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “We weren't going to try to figure out if they were in man or in zone. If it was really obvious, then we would run this or this. But otherwise we're just going to play and be in these actions. And, again, at the start I think that really helped us because our guys were just playing and weren't thinking. When they adjusted and started to run through a little bit and go with our cutters, I needed to get us switched into something that would attack a little more, overload a side, attack a little more inside. So that's, again, that's on me for not adjusting quite soon enough.”

Pitino couldn't say enough good things about his team's defense.

“I told our guys, we're not going to press tonight, just sparingly, but I want you to really, really focus (on the zone),” Pitino said. “What helped us tremendously was playing Virginia twice. . . . So we really wanted to focus in on keeping our bigs inside, switching our backcourt guys outside, going man, going zone, and they did it to perfection.”

The senior had some big rebounds, and scored 10 points, but his biggest play came after he lost the ball, then recovered to get a hand on a dunk by Wes Washpan that would've pulled the Panthers within four. 

“I was tired, but I sprinted back for my life,” Blackshear said. “Because I knew coach would be all over me if I didn't do something. Fortunately we were able to get that stop.”

The Cards then answered with a lob dunk for Harrell, and took control of the closing minutes. The play doesn't show up on the stat sheet -- literally -- Blackshear wasn't credited with a block. But Pitino called it the "big key of the game."

Jaylen Johnson played four minutes in the first half and led the game with four rebounds. He was active, and wasn't bothered by the magnitude of the game. He scored on a follow-tip and made a free throw.

Shaqquan Aaron was active in his time in the game. He cut hard, and filled the lane on a fast break, missing the layup, but drawing the defense that allowed Johnson the opening to tip it in. Anas Mahmoud even came in and hit a couple of free throws late.

Johnson said that even though they haven't played, the freshmen are ready to contribute.

“I'm just glad I've worked and played hard in practice to give coach a little confidence in me,” Johnson said. “Going against a great player like Montrezl Harrell, you're going to get better. I'm ready to play. I want to do something special for these seniors, and for coach. He's been great for me."

Blackshear said that former Cardinals assistant Richard Pitino gave the players an outsider's view of their team. He also talked to them about chemistry, about supporting each other, and about enjoying these kinds of moments.

“We respect him a lot,” Blackshear said. “Guys listened to what he had to say.”

In two NCAA Tournament games, he's averaging 13 points, 4.5 rebounds and is 4-7 (57.1 percent) from three-point range. He's shooting 50 percent from the field. And he's turned the ball over twice in 72 minutes of play.

“I don't know what we expected from Quentin Snider,” Pitino said. “But we didn't expect this, to be honest with you. But Quentin's always looking for these guys, and he doesn't get nervous at all. I thought maybe he was losing his mind throwing a lob at the end of the game with under a minute left, but outside of that, he's unflappable. He's a cool customer.”

In the NCAA Tournament so far, U of L is 85.2 percent from the line, 23 of 27. Rozier is 9-10. Blackshear is 3-3. Snider is 2-3. Harrell is 6-7.

“You can see Montreal's follow through, how slow his release is,” Pitino said. “Every one he took tonight I thought was going in. Terry has become a great free-throw shooter.”

The Cards have had fouls to have in the closing minutes of both their NCAA Tournament games. They've sent opponents to the line only 15 times in two games.

I don't know if enough is said about it, but I got a question on Twitter asking how players get tired, given the number and length of timeouts during NCAA Tournament games. U of L players were gassed in the final minutes Sunday night, but pressed on. These guys are expending maximum effort. They may not always make shots or do things perfectly, but in two tournament games, Rozier averaged 39 minutes, Blackshear 37.5, Harrell 37 and Snider 36. Mathiang is giving the Cards 22 per game off the bench. There's a great deal of mental and physical effort to play the kind of defense the Cards are playing, and then to turn around and cut and move on offense.

“I prod them the whole game because I can't take them out,” Pitino said. “Montrezl was working so hard and he was so dead and I kept saying, ‘You've got to give us more, son. You've got to give us more. You can't tire.' And I don't know how they do it, but they've done it the whole year. These two (Rozier and Harrell) have carried the team on their backs that has many problems, and tonight they we played our best game of the season.”

After Pitino commended his players for taking no plays off, Rozier broke in.

“He's not giving himself enough credit, either” Rozier said. “We don't take a play off because of him. He's a great coach.”

Harrell looks worn down at times. His motor, always running, has been through a long season. He's been public enemy No. 1 for Louisville opponents since November. He's averaging 11 points and five rebounds. He's been the team's No. 4 scorer in the tournament, behind Rozier, Blackshear and Snider. But he's occupying a far higher percentage of the opponents' efforts than some of those guys.

And Harrell has been through these kinds of games, he and Blackshear. He'll be a big part of whatever Louisville can manage to do from here on.

He dogged UNI's star, Seth Tuttle. “We made him work all night,” Harrell said. “We didn't let him see anything easy. . . . We studied the film and knew everything that he really wanted to do when he caught the ball.”

“As a basketball program, we've had a lot of ups and downs in this season,” Harrell went on. “But I feel like we responded in the right way. I feel like we came together as a team tonight and we really did the key things that we needed to do on the defensive end to make sure that we rode our team to the victory.”

The Cardinals had only nine turnovers against UC Irvine. They had just seven against Northern Iowa. They've given up only 15 points off turnovers in two games, which has helped their offensive efficiency.

Harrell and Rozier — particularly after Rozier's game last night — are gone for the NBA after this season. But Pitino has found a way to build around them enough to keep winning.

“If I'm a pro general manager, I know these guys are going to a pro team,” Pitino said. “And they have been built to play every possession and not take any time off. So when you're drafting a professional basketball player, you want that type of heart and that type of attitude. Their skill level is great. Terry has improved dramatically and Montrezl came back and he's become much better at every phase of the game.”

This is a team that had to replace its point guard late in the season. It doesn't have a true post that it can throw the ball to. It is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in NCAA Division I. There are issues. But Pitino has won 26 games against a schedule ranked the 26th toughest in the nation. 

He's 11-1 in the Sweet 16, and getting ready to face a team that he's already seen once, albeit in a loss. But this is the time he lives for. Blackshear, who is headed to his fourth straight Sweet 16, knows about this time of year. No matter how many times you see things come together, it surprises  you. It shouldn't. He's 43-7 in the NCAA Tournament when his team is the higher seed. He's been to the Sweet 16 in 13 of his past 20 tournament appearances. U of L's streak of four straight is the longest in the nation, along with four in a row by Michigan State.

Blackshear has seen Pitino at this time of year. He's making his fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance as a player.  He knows this is the coach's favorite time of year.

“This time of year, I know from being around this program, you never know what's going to happen,” Blackshear said. “You just go win the next game.“

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.