ORLANDO, Fla. - Two years ago, when Louisville made its run to the Final Four, setting up a national title a year later, its NCAA Tournament run started with a hard-fought, underwhelming 69-62 win against 13th-seeded Davidson.
Rick Pitino hopes that Thursday's 71-64 win against 13th-seeded Manhattan -- which saw the Cardinals trailing in the final three minutes -- can set up a similar long NCAA run, starting with Saturday's third-round game against fifth-seeded Saint Louis.
"I thought it was really, really important . . . I knew it would be a tight, hard-fought ballgame," Pitino said from the Amway Center. "This is not last year's team . . . this is a totally different type of team that needed a close, hard-fought game."
And although Louisville escaped intact Thursday night, Saint Louis had even more to overcome in its first game, rallying from a 14-point deficit with five minutes to play to avoid an upset in overtime against 12th-seeded N.C. State. Coming down from the emotions of that game, from avoiding the disaster of an opening loss, and now focusing on this game is something the two teams share.
"The locker room was wild after the game, after a comeback like that. You can't help but just go crazy," Billikens senior forward Dwayne Evans said Friday afternoon. "But like I said, that was for last night, and as of this morning when we all woke up, it was on to business for Louisville."
If the defending champions are to make a sustained run to a third straight Final Four, they'll need better games from key players, like senior guard Russ Smith, who was slowed by an injury to his left thumb. While another senior, Luke Hancock, stepped up huge in the final minutes with eight consecutive points to rally Louisville to victory, Pitino liked the way Smith and forward Montrezl Harrell closed the game after not playing their best much of the night.
"What was impressive to me is that Russ, Montrezl were having nightmarish games, and down the stretch, with the game on the line, they both made great plays," Pitino said. "That tells you something about their abilities. Russ made a great three to tie it up, made a great pass to Montrezl inside. To block out the fact that you're having a bad game and to just make all the right plays speaks volumes of two veteran basketball players who have been through it."
Just like Louisville, Saint Louis has learned from its near-miss Thursday, and they face Louisville seeking multiple NCAA wins for the first time in their history, having lost in their second game five times, including the last two years.
"We've been the underdog pretty much my entire time at Saint Louis, so it's nothing new," Evans said. "But to be the best, you've got to beat the best, and obviously Louisville won it last year, and I think we have the team to do it."