Louisville just hasn't been the same. That was the prevailing thought all this past month and all week entering the tournament and even all this afternoon. Not the same since guard Chris Jones was dismissed from the team in late February. The excuses were being readied, set up for the seemingly inevitable moment where the Cardinals were bounced early from the NCAA tournament.
They had bumped around to the finish line of the regular season even before Jones was kicked off the team, and their loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals left them 5-5 in their last 10 games entering the Big Dance. Then came the Round of 64 matchup against Big West champion UC Irvine—a team that not a lot of folks know about unless you're really into late-night Big West games.
Louisville did indeed get a test from the Anteaters but survived 57-55 thanks to a Terry Rozier steal as UC Irvine tried to set up a game-winning shot attempt in the final seconds.
The Cardinals had trailed by two with 62 seconds to go when Irvine's Luke Nelson had made baseline jumper, sending Seattle's Key Arena into a state of frenzy. The viewing public, meanwhile, was anticipating the first real upset of the day, after a 13-hour stretch of nothing but a day earlier. And why not? Louisville appeared to be a mismatched team of parts and players that don't fit quite right—the perfect sacrificial lamb for the underdog.
But the underdog did what underdogs tend to do when the upset is actually there for the taking—they got greedy. After Wayne Blackshear tied the game at 55 with a layup, Nelson dribbled around for far too long, then settled on a far-too-long three-point attempt that banged off the rim. The ball went bouncing into the corner, where Cardinals freshman Quentin Snider recovered it and was fouled.
Two shots at the line.
He made both. Louisville led.
UC-Irvine still had a chance, having to bring the ball the length of the court with 8.9 seconds left and Louisville with two fouls to give. Snider committed the first at midcourt with 5.7 seconds remaining. The Anteaters inbounded the ball to Alex Young, but Rozier poked the ball loose, then took it away when Young tried to recover.
Blackshear led the Cardinals with 19 points while Snider added 16 and Rozier 12. As for 6'8" junior Montrezl Harrell? Louisville's star forward had his hands full with Irvine's 7-foot-6 center, Mamadou Ndiaye, who had 12 points—several on crowd-pleasing dunks—and five rebounds.
It wasn't how Rick Pitino's team wanted its first game of this NCAA tournament to go. The Cardinals wanted to win handily, leaving nothing to chance. But sometimes that doesn't happen. Sometimes the underdog proves to have more bite than anticipated.
But generally in this tournament, the ant eventually gets eaten.