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Despite trying season, Louisville still standing after beating Northern Iowa

Terry Rozier led the fourth-seeded Cardinals to a 66-53 win over NIU to make their fourth consecutive Sweet 16.

SEATTLE – Rick Pitino paced the sideline. He screamed with arms outstretched. He stomped so hard at one point that his Italian leather dress shoe produced an echo and threatened a hole near the seat he never sat in.

His season was supposed to have ended already, in an early-round loss in this NCAA tournament. It didn’t seem to matter the opponent. This wasn’t a Louisville group typical of those from recent seasons, the ones primed for Final Fours and national championships, definitely not like the Cardinals squad that captured the title two seasons ago. This Louisville team, the one that started 19-3 and finished 24-8, didn’t seem particularly strong. Pitino had kicked Chris Jones, his starting senior point guard, off the team in late February. Louisville was doomed. Or so it seemed.

So there Pitino stood late in the second half on Sunday, opposite a Northern Iowa team that finished the season ranked 11th in the AP poll. The East Regional upset so many had expected at the outset of the tournament had failed to materialize. The day before, Villanova, the top seed in the East, had fallen. Earlier Sunday, Virginia, the second seed, had also faltered. Yet the team so many expected to lose—Louisville—had not only won again two days after escaping against UC-Irvine, but will be favored in its Sweet 16 matchup next week against No. 8 seed N.C. State.

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The final tally on Sunday read 66-53 in favor of the Cardinals, and while it didn’t seem that lopsided, the margin was indicative of how Louisville took—and maintained—control. The Cardinals shot 52% in the first half, despite a roster down essentially to three scorers: forward Montrezl Harrell, wing Wayne Blackshear and guard Terry Rozier. It was Rozier who scored a game-high 25-points (and seven assists), and it was Harrell who slammed home two alley-oops in the final minutes to help put the game away.

The last of those shook the rim and Pitino moved, finally, as if to sit. He didn’t. He wore a dark suit, a pinstriped dress shirt featuring a white collar and a patterned red tie. He looked dapper, same as his unexpected Sweet 16 team. He never did sit down.

“We know that coach is going to coach us for every part of the game,” Harrell said, and it seemed like he meant that sentiment literally.

Rick Pitino has guided the Cardinals to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season.

Rick Pitino has guided the Cardinals to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season.

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Atop the stage for his postgame press conference, Pitino seemed to want to avoid the question everyone wanted answered. He dished one inquiry about the turbulence of the last month to his players, Harrell and Rozier, who sat beside him. He dodged a second query about the way the season had unraveled. Asked for a third time, he finally provided something. “Look, we had a bad situation,” he said. “I don’t know what we expected. We didn’t expect this.”

Pitino acknowledged that the dismissal of Jones, who was averaging 13.7 points, shortened the Cardinals’ bench. It meant that Harrell and Rozier each played at least 36 minutes against the Panthers (Rozier played 39). Pitino also wondered what he’d get from freshman guard Quentin Snider, who replaced Jones in the starting lineup last month. On Sunday, Snider added 10 points and four rebounds as Louisville advanced to its fourth-straight regional semifinal, a record for the program. 

Before the game, pundits made little mention of Louisville's defense. Perhaps they should have. That has been the Cardinals' hallmark under Pitino, a defense that shifts and presses and harasses opponents into submission.

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That’s what happened Sunday. Louisville played zone. Louisville played man. Louisville pressed and pressured. Seth Tuttle, the Panthers’ NBA-bound forward, managed only seven shots and finished with 14 points. As a team, UNI shot 39%—it made over 48% for the season—and recorded 10 turnovers against nine assists. It was, coach Ben Jacobson said afterward, an off night at the worst possible time. For that, he credited the Cardinals for ending a season he called “the best four months of basketball the program has ever had.”

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Back atop the stage, the 62-year-old Pitino looked his age when he put on glasses to read the stat sheet. He’s not getting any younger, and this team, and this season, didn’t seem to help.

That said, the East Regional looks wide open. No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Virginia are gone. There’s No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 7 Michigan State—which, like Louisville, is a perennial contender—and No. 8 N.C. State, which toppled the Wildcats on Saturday. Jones or no Jones, great team or good one, the Cardinals are capable of advancing. Especially with the way they can suffocate an opposing offense.

All that can wait a few days. Pitino focused on this game afterward, not the past month, not this strange season, just 40 minutes of basketball where Louisville was Louisville again. It should be noted: he had finally sat down.