CRAWFORD | Louisville wakes up, hits cruise to beat Jacksonville State 78-63 in NCAA opener
Eric Crawford on Louisville's 78-63 win over Jacksonville State to open play in the NCAA Tournament.
INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- Leaving his team’s huddle after the first media timeout of its first NCAA Tournament game, Rick Pitino wheeled around and shouted, at the backs of his players, “Wake the (bleep) up!”
It’s not the message you’d like to have to deliver on a stage where Cinderella feeds on tentative favorites and the confidence of fast starts.
But Pitino’s University of Louisville team, to that point, had made just 1 of 10 shots, and missed a dazzling array of layups -- six of them, in fact. First by Mangok Mathiang, then Jaylen Johnson. Then Johnson missed a dunk. Donovan Mitchell missed three shots -- a couple of them layups -- on his way to an 0-for-9 start.
Jacksonville State led 8-0 before a nation of CBS Sports viewers could say, “What the?”
The Cardinals, you know by now, did wake up. They beat the Gamecocks 78-63 to advance to Sunday’s second-round game against streaking Michigan. Tipoff is set for 12:10 p.m.
But it wasn’t without effort. To watch a game from behind the Louisville bench is to watch a work still in progress, in the third week of March. Sometimes, Pitino screaming to his players resembles the guy screaming at the car in the movies to watch out for the oncoming train -- and is just as effective.
Defense isn’t yet instinctive for the Cards, even if the offense has gotten better (missed shots aside).
And lest you forget that five of the 10 players Pitino used Friday had never been to an NCAA Tournament, Pitino got a stark reminder during an early timeout.
“To show you how inexperienced we are,” Pitino said, “we had a player say ‘There’s a lady in our huddle stealing our plays.’ It was Tracy Wolfson (of CBS)."
If you’d been around in the morning, to hear Deng Adel scream “It’s game day!” to Donovan Mitchell at the team’s hotel, you’d have remembered.
“When we woke up, we could definitely feel it,” Mitchell said. “It was like, when it was Christmas and you knew you had to wake your parents up, it was like that. . . . We had a walk-through, and we were excited. Then we got back, and we got our jerseys, and I went like, ‘DA (Adel),’ and I showed him the little logo (NCAA patch sewn onto the uniform) and we started screaming out of nowhere. . . . Obviously, we came out a little bit nervous, but we were glad for our fans there yelling for us. But it was just a great opportunity to play and have fun and do what we wanted to do since we were kids.”
Mitchell probably didn’t dream of going 0-for-8 in the first half and three for 15 overall in his first NCAA game. But he still finished the game with nine points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and that pleased Pitino -- that other aspects of his game didn’t suffer even amid poor shooting. That probably wouldn’t have been the case early in the season.
Mathiang was a stabilizer for Louisville, matching his career high with 18 points after his difficult start.
And the Cards got a real boost from two first-timers. Adel had 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting. Ray Spalding had 11 points and four rebounds off the bench, going 4-4 from the field and 3-3 from the line.
“You know what I've found?” Pitino said. “I don't know why, but it happened to Villanova last night, when you're a low seed, you come out a little tight because you're supposed to win in the minds of everybody, and the players -- you know, usually we don't miss dunks at point-blank range.”
The Cards missed 10 layups and dunks (12-22) and 10 three-pointers (5-15), but they still scored on 54.7 percent of their possessions and rebounded 16 of their 33 misses, turning those into 24 second-chance points.
They did what they had to do to win. They never could quite shake Ray Harper’s Gamecocks, though. They extended their lead to 17 midway through the second half, but never could push it larger.
Timely three-pointers kept Jacksonville State in contact. Seven-footer Norbertas Giga, who had made only eight three-pointers all season, went 5-for-5 from beyond the arc. Louisville pressed as much, and as aggressively, as it has in any game all season. But Jacksonville State kept coming. It cut its deficit to nine points with 6:53 left. Adel hit a layup 24 seconds later and Louisville scored the next seven points to kill the threat.
“They never stopped,” Pitino said. “We had relentless pressure on them. They never stopped, kept staying in the game. Really happy for Ray because he did a terrific job in his first year. They have very good basketball players.”
Harper, in his first year in Jacksonville, Ala., after being dismissed from Western Kentucky, said he was proud of his program’s accomplishment.
“I’m glad the entire country got to see how hard these guys play,” Harper said. “. . . The game was determined by our inability to rebound the ball. It wasn't because of a lack of effort. Their length and their athleticism caused us some problems. But it was definitely not a lack of effort, and I told the guys in the locker room, couldn't be more proud. First trip ever for Jacksonville State to the NCAA tournament. I think we represented our university, our city, and the OVC in a class manner, which we said we would. And the bar's been set. Hopefully we can do it again here some day soon.”
Louisville improved to 12-0 as the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournaments. Their previous two trips as the No. 2, they won national titles, in 1980 and 1986.
To advance, they’ll have to face a team a on a tear. Michigan made 16 three-pointers to edge Oklahoma State 92-91 in Friday’s first game.
“We didn't guard the three well tonight, but they banked three of them in, and they made another three with one second on the (shot) clock,” Pitino said. “So, you know, when they shoot 50 percent, go 10 for 19 from the three and you still win by 15, you have to take it. That being said, we're playing against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday. So I've never seen -- I watched the second half. I've never seen shooting like that since I've been a coach. It's incredible the way they shoot the basketball.”
Until then, the Cards have a chance to settle their nerves, work on their defense, and enjoy a little more of the NCAA Tournament.
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