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Louisville spoils Jacksonville State’s NCAA debut

By Joe Spears

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS — Over the course of a storied history, the Louisville Cardinals have made 42 NCAA tournament appearances, more than all but four schools.

The Jacksonville State Gamecocks were making their first.

The Cardinals dominated the backboards as they downed the 15th-seeded Gamecocks, 78-63.

“First and foremost, I’m awfully proud of our guys,” Jacksonville State head coach Ray Harper said. “The country got an opportunity to see how hard they play. Unfortunately today, the game was determined by our inability to rebound the ball. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort. Their length and athleticism caused us some problems.”

One year removed from self-imposed sanctions that kept them out of the tournament, the result of a NCAA investigation, Louisville (25-8) advanced to a second-round game against Michigan for a spot in the Midwest regional semifinals. The Cardinals outrebounded Jacksonville State, 36-23. They had 16 offensive rebounds and outscored the Gamecocks in second-chance points, 24-3.

That decisive advantage allowed Louisville to overcome a team that appeared to start the game with nothing to lose. The Gamecocks connected on three of their first five shots and jumped out to an 8-0 lead three minutes into the game. By the time the Cardinals hit their first shot of the game, they were down 10-2 to a Gamecocks team shooting 60 percent.

But if the shot wasn’t falling for the Cardinals, another Louisville player was often under the basket ready for the rebound. In a half that saw the Gamecocks grab 13 rebounds, the Cardinals snatched 13 offensive rebounds and scored 18-second chance points. Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has taken the Cardinals to the tournament in 13 of 15 years, established rebounding as a priority and his players responded.

“Coach (Pitino) has made it a big point of us crashing the glass offensively all the time, 90 percent of the time,” senior forward Mangok Mathiang said. “It worked out a lot for us today. I wasn’t grabbing a lot of them, but I was tipping some of them out for our guards to actually give us a second chance.”

Whatever halftime adjustments Pitino made kicked in to start the second half. The Cardinals started the half on an 8-3 run connecting on four of their first six shots in the half.

“We did a good job of rotating in the back end and got a lot of deflections,” Louisville forward Deng Adel said. “We forced them to shoot tough shots. We did a good job of controlling the backboard.”

While the Cardinals could do almost no wrong on offense, the Gamecocks struggled to do anything right with the ball in their hands to start the second half. Their 1-for-10 start was a reversal of their 59.1 percent shooting in the first half.

Eight minutes into the second half, Louisville had connected on seven of its first 11 shots. Jacksonville State struggled to get anything to fall during that same span, as the Gamecocks made just 3 of 11 shots. The offensive struggles of the Gamecocks, paired with Louisville’s fresh offensive look, expanded a Cardinal lead that reached 17 with 12:19 to play.

There was one final push left in the Gamecocks. The duo of Malcolm Drumwright and Norbertas Giga combined for 10 points over a four-minute stretch to trim the Cardinal lead to 61-52 with.6:53 to play. A 9-3 Louisville burst in the next 2:15 gave the Cardinals a 15-point lead with 4:38 to go.

“The one stat that stands jumps out at you is that they beat us 24-3 on second chance points,” Harper said. “We shoot 50 percent from the field and 53 percent from three, all numbers I would have taken prior to the game.”

The win sets up a second-round matchup with Michigan, one of the hottest teams in the country. While Jacksonville State may not have Michigan’s skill level, Louisville may have gotten a preview of what they may see in their Sunday matchup.

Led by five 3-pointers from Giga, who scored a game-high 30 points on 11-13 shooting, the Gamecocks knocked down 10 3-pointers to keep within striking distance of the Cardinals. Michigan connected on 16 of its 29 3-point shots in a 92-91 victory over Oklahoma State. Michigan’s 16 3-pointers were the most by the Wolverines in a NCAA tournament game.

“We’re playing against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday,” Pitino proclaimed. “I watched the second half. I’ve never seen shooting like that since I’ve been a basketball coach. It’s incredible the way they shoot the ball.”

The latest installment between Louisville and Michigan will be the second meeting in the NCAA Tournament.  In 2013, the Cardinals edged the Wolverines, 82-76, in the national championship game.

“My respect for him is off the charts,” Pitino said of Michigan head coach Beilein. “His teams are fun to watch, well-coached and well-drilled. He will turn it over. It’s going to be a heck of a game.”

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