By Gregg Bell / Staff writer
SEATTLE -- This “Big Dance” isn’t too big for a freshman.
Quentin Snider, playing his first NCAA tournament game for his hometown team, swished two one-and-one free throws – his only foul shots of the game -- with 8.9 seconds remaining and fourth-seeded Louisville escaped the second round of East region with a 57-55 victory over 13th-seeded UC Irvine at roaring, just-about-packed KeyArena in Seattle.
“It’s the first round. It’s very difficult,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after a performance that was far from those of his previous national-title and Final Four teams.
“You’re in dogfights.”
This was one.
Snider’s free throws came after Luke Nelson had two chances to give the Anteaters (21-13) of the Big West Conference the lead. After his second miss, Snider got pushed into the Irvine bench while tracking down the rebound in the backcourt.
“Pretty much I just tried to have confidence in myself,” Snider said. “Come through the game, coming into the game, just have confidence. It is my first NCAA Tournament, you know, just try to be confident.”
Irvine had a final chance to win or tie. Louisville committed one of its two fouls to give in the final seconds. Pitino ordered the Cardinals to foul again, and with 5 seconds left they tried to shove Nelson to the floor. As they did, Irvine’s sophomore guard lost the ball while falling just inside the midcourt line. The turnover – with no foul call from the officials despite the howls of Nelson and the KeyArena crowd that adopted the Anteaters as their own as the afternoon went on – ended the game.
Snider finished with 16 points for Louisville (25-8). After an up-and-down season of injuries, suspensions and expulsions in their Atlantic Coast Conference season, the Cardinals advance to Sunday’s third round against fifth-seeded Northern Iowa (31-3) for a spot in the Sweet 16.
The Panthers, champions of the Missouri Valley Conference, beat Wyoming 71-4 in Friday’s first game here.
Louisville had all sorts of angst with Irvine’s 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye. College basketball’s tallest player changed countless shots on defense, and made six of nine hook shots and banks in close to finish with 12 points and five rebounds. Louisville almost died by its surprising strategy of not going right at Ndiaye in an effort to get the towering presence out of the game because of foul trouble. That’s part of the reason he had just one blocked shot.
A key moment in the game came at the end of the first half – and it had nothing to do with Ndiaye.
Louisville scored seven straight points to take their second – and larger – lead of the game, 30-23. But Irvine’s Nelson hit a pivotal 3 and after a Louisville miss. Will Davis II tipped in an Anteaters miss just before the halftime buzzer to restore the game’s tension, 30-28.
It stayed that tight throughout the second half, underscoring the fact this isn’t one of Pitino’s deeper or better teams after its tumult. Those who have Northern Iowa to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since its huge upset of top-seeded Kansas in 2010 should be feeling great about those prospects right now.