NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Rick Pitino warned his team.
Louisville’s coach didn’t expect an easy game against Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and the Ragin’ Cajuns proved just as troublesome as Pitino suspected – maybe even more.
“Even at halftime, we said look guys, you think you’re going to blow this team out, you’re mistaken. It’s coming down to last 2 minutes,” Pitino said after his fourth-seeded Cardinals advanced in the Albuquerque Regional with a 68-62 victory Friday night.
“We’re very proud of this victory. When you’re a four seed, and you play these teams today, you’re going to play a terrific basketball team. We knew we weren’t getting a breather.”
Francisco Garcia went 7 for 7 from the foul line in the final 1:57, finishing with 27 points to help Louisville (30-4) reach the second round for the second time in three years under Pitino, who is 28-9 in the NCAA Tournament.
Pitino insisted all along that Louisiana-Lafayette was not a typical No. 13 seed, going as far as to say the Ragin’ Cajuns were the most difficult first-round opponent he’s faced in 10 tournament appearances with Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, and now Louisville.
Turns out, he wasn’t just paying lip service.
There were eight lead changes in the second half before Louisville finally went ahead for good, 56-55, on two free throws by Larry O’Bannon with 3:43 to go. The Cardinals were held to one field goal the rest of the way – Otis George’s tip-in – but made eight more free throws to pull away.
No one was more clutch than Garcia, who was fouled by Dwayne Mitchell on a 3-point attempt with 1:57 to go, and made all three free throws for a 63-57 lead. He made two more with a minute left, then calmly sank his last two to push the Cardinals’ advantage back to five with 13.9 seconds remaining.
O’Bannon scored 13 points and Taquan Dean has 12 for Louisville, which erased memories of a first-round loss to Xavier a year ago.
Brian Hamilton led Louisiana-Lafayette (20-11) with 19 points before fouling out..
“It is a shame a team had to lose tonight,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Robert Lee said. “But our team played great, and that’s all I can ask. … We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch.”
Pitino and his players have spent much of the week deflecting questions about the team’s seeding.
The Cardinals’ victory over Memphis in the Conference USA tournament title game was their ninth straight and 18th in 19 games, and many anticipated it would be enough for Louisville to earn a No. 1 or – at worst – a No. 2 seed.
Lee also felt Louisiana-Lafayette deserved better on selection day after playing a tough non-conference schedule that included road games at LSU, Charlotte, Kansas, North Carolina State and Vanderbilt.
Georgia Tech 80, George Washington 68: Well, look at this. Georgia Tech finally gets an easy win in the NCAA Tournament.
Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum and B.J. Elder combined to score on six straight possessions in the second half, leading the Yellow Jackets (20-11) to a victory over the Colonials (22-8). Jack had 20 to lead Georgia Tech, which never won by more than eight points last year in their march to the championship game.
Bynum had 17 and Elder added 15 for Georgia Tech.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu scored 15 to lead four players in double figures for 12th-seeded George Washington.
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