PORTLAND, Ore. — Louisville’s late regular-season slide has turned into a postseason surge.
Russ Smith scored 17 points as Louisville held off a late New Mexico rally 59-56 Saturday for its sixth consecutive win, advancing to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 for the first time since 2009.
The Cardinals (28-9) lost three of their last four regular-season games, then swept through the Big East Conference tournament with four straight wins. The No. 4 seed then beat Davidson in their NCAA opener before facing the fifth-seeded Lobos.
Coach Rick Pitino said the Cardinals’ Big East run was just what they needed.
“I’m really delighted, because I thought this team had a lot of limitations,” he said. “I wanted to win that Big East tournament in the worst way because I knew their confidence would grow.”
They’ll need that boost this week when then face the winner of today’s Saint Louis-Michigan State game at the West Region semifinal at Phoenix.
“It just feels good. Everybody really battled today,” said Louisville guard Peyton Siva, who had a big group of family and friends from his hometown Seattle at the game. “It was a tough game, feels like a Big East game out there and man, they came out and played hard.”
With the ouster of New Mexico (28-7), the Mountain West’s four NCAA Tournament teams have been eliminated, compiling a 1-4 record. UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State suffered opening defeats and New Mexico beat Long Beach State 75-68 on Thursday.
Held scoreless in the first half, Siva finished with six points and five assists. Kyle Kuric and Chane Behanan each added 10 points.
Trailing 53-46, New Mexico’s Drew Gordon made two free throws, and Demetrius Walker hit a 3-pointer to pull to the Lobos to within 53-51 with 1:36 left. Smith made a pair of free throws for fourth-seeded Louisville, but Gordon answered with a tip-in.
Gorgui Dieng dunked with 32.3 seconds to plays and Peyton Siva added two free throws to make it 59-53. Gordon dropped a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left, but it was too late for the fifth-seeded Lobos, who have never been to the round of 16.
“I told the guys, you give us effort and defend, that’s all I ever ask,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. “If you have a night where you don’t make shots, you’ve got to hope your defense and effort is enough. It wasn’t quite enough tonight.”
Gordon led the Lobos with 21 points and 14 rebounds, despite going down with what looked like a scary left knee injury late in the first half. He came back a short time later with the knee wrapped.
“Felt like my life flashed before my eyes. I went up to try and block a shot, and AJ (Hardeman) was trying to take a charge,” Gordon said. “So when I was going up he was going down and forced me back down and fell against my leg in an awkward position. I felt a couple of pops. But the doc checked me out and said I was OK.”
But his return wasn’t enough to get the Lobos past the Cardinals.
In a rollercoaster season, Louisville rose to No. 4 in the rankings in December before tumbling with five losses in seven games. The Cardinals also lost three of four heading into the Big East tournament. But it appeared that something clicked when Louisville won four games in four nights, capped by a 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the final.
Now Louisville is eager to do whatever it takes to keep the momentum rolling.
“I just stay on the bench and look and see what we need,” Smith said. “If we need defensive energy I’ll try and do that. If we need points I’ll try and do that. I just try and do what I feel the team needs at the time, and hopefully it’ll just work out.”