Through all the tumult of kicking its point guard off the team in February, poor shooting and an opening-game escape past 13-seed UC Irvine that was in the NCAA tournament for the first time, it turns out this Louisville team is right back where it usually is in March.
And it took March Madness returning to roaring, packed KeyArena for the first time since 2004 for Louisville to do it.
“We just got away from everything,” Cardinals senior Wayne Blackshear said after he became the first Louisville player to reach four consecutive Sweet 16s. “We had to come all the way out to Seattle to bond and come together.”
Terry Rozier exquisitely ensured that.
The sophomore scored 25 points — nearly as much as Northern Iowa’s starters. His seven assists were a pair more than the opponent’s starting five had. And supposedly endangered four-seed Louisville using changing defenses to confuse fifth-seeded Northern Iowa and emerge from KeyArena with another trip to the regional semifinals following its, 66-53, victory Sunday night.
“We’ve had to rally around it. We’ve had a short bench,” coach Rick Pitino said after his 52nd career NCAA tournament win — and one month after he booted Chris Jones and his 14 points and four assists per game from the storied Louisville program. “But these guys, they don’t take a play off. And that’s rare in today’s game.”
Rozier’s brilliance ended six electric games inside sold-out KeyArena this weekend, including Gonzaga’s two wins that got the loudest roars.
Louisville is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year and 21st time overall. Only North Carolina (26), Kentucky (26) and Duke (24) have been to more regional semifinals.
The Cardinals (26-8) advanced to the East regional semifinal Friday against their new Atlantic Coast Conference rival, eighth-seeded North Carolina State (22-13) in Syracuse, New York. Third-seeded Oklahoma and seventh-seeded Michigan State play the other semifinal there.
The Panthers continually rallied Sunday but ultimately got overwhelmed by Rozier — and by Louisville confusing it with defenses that changed from 2-3 zone to man-to-man to 3-2 zone. And back.
“They didn’t know what to run,” Blackshear said.
Rozier scored or assisted on 27 of Louisville’s 36 points in the first half, after which his team led by nine, and 38 of his team’s first 55 points. That and the harassing defense inside are what kept the Cardinals up by 10.
He watched the Panthers’ Seth Tuttle, among 15 finalists for the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player, take just three shots in the game’s first 23 minutes. Louisville led by nine with 17 minutes left.
The Panthers (31-4) kept running pick-and-rolls at the top of the key with the 6-foot-8 Tuttle. But Louisville’s 6-10 Mangok Mathiang was almost always wiping out Tuttle’s roll with his pterodactyl-like wingspan.
Blackshear had the game’s signature play. Northern Iowa had closed to within 55-49 with 4 minutes left when Panthers guard Wes Washpun went up for a fast-break dunk. Blackshear raced from seemingly Everett to block the slam from behind to start Louisville off the other way.
Rozier — who else — lobbed an alley-oop pass. Montrezl Harrell slammed that home, and sent Northern Iowa back to Cedar Falls for the spring and summer.
“There wasn’t anything easy at the rim,” said Tuttle, raising his mostly bowed head and revealing watery, red eyes after the Panthers were denied their second trip to the Sweet 16 after one in 2010.
“Even if you got past one guy, they’d be another waiting at the rim.”