LEXINGTON, Ky -- Imagine the Yankees having a home game at Fenway Park. Imagine the place filled with rollicking Yankees fans, enjoying a blowout. That basically was the atmosphere at Rupp Arena Thursday night as the rival Louisville Cardinals opened with a 79-48 victory that was one part NCAA Tournament game and two parts pep rally.
This is what happens when the University of Kentucky agrees to host regional games and Louisville earns the honor of being the top seed in the region. Even though North Carolina A&T had a crowd-pleasing band and a pregame talk from Rev. Jesse Jackson, the support, like the score, was no contest.
"It definitely was different. Every time I've been here it was filled with blue, hardly any red. We had tons of fans here. It was awesome," said backup big man Stephan Van Treese, who played well and heard it. "I feel like it helped our intensity, especially early in the game."
Russ Smith, who had 23 points and eight steals in 25 minutes, said, "We really needed a big lift early, and thanks to the fans, we got it."
It is debatable how much of a lift the Cardinals needed against the No. 16 seed. Still, it was odd to see all those red shirts in the stands. Louisville was not knocking it. A day earlier, point guard Peyton Siva said, "I'm just happy not to play Kentucky here because I haven't had a great success playing against Kentucky at Kentucky. You know, we look forward to going out there and playing as hard as we would on any other court. We can play at the YMCA and I guarantee you coach [Rick] Pitino will still have us pressing full-court."
Their press rattled the team that earned its way in with a first-round victory Tuesday night. "Things were loud, but that didn't change anything we did,'' North Carolina A&T forward Bruce Beckford said. "We just didn't execute."
Louisville's Luke Hancock had said earlier, "Sometimes fans really think that is a huge hated rivalry. It's not quite like that with the players, I don't think."
Maybe, maybe not. Still, he heard no boos Thursday night. Only chants of "Luuuuuuuuuk!"
Roars grew louder and louder: Siva executed a spin move to score early in the second half, Smith hit a three-point shot to make it 65-37 and Van Treese grabbed an offensive rebound and, in one motion, dunked with two hands to make it 72-41. That brought a standing ovation.
Benchwarmers got huge ovations whenever they touched the ball in the closing minutes.
The bottom line was, Louisville (30-5) was able to take advantage because it is so good.
"I think they have what it takes to potentially win the national championship," said Cy Alexander, coach of North Carolina A&T (20-17). "I would like to say, three weeks down the road, that we lost to the national champions."
No matter what happens in the next three weeks, the Cardinals right now are the champions of the state of Kentucky.