published Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Cards prove why they're the top seed

North Carolina A&T guard Lamont Middleton, center, has the ball stolen by Louisville guard Russ Smith (2), left, and forward Stephan Van Treese (44) during the second half their second-round NCAA college basketball tournament game in Lexington, Ky.
North Carolina A&T guard Lamont Middleton, center, has the ball stolen by Louisville guard Russ Smith (2), left, and forward Stephan Van Treese (44) during the second half their second-round NCAA college basketball tournament game in Lexington, Ky.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — North Carolina A&T coach Cy Alexander pulled out every motivational tool he could think of to psych up his Aggies for NCAA tournament overall No. 1 seed Louisville on Thursday night.

He even had the Rev. Jesse Jackson ride the team bus to Rupp Arena and give A&T a pregame pep talk.

"He talked to us and said a prayer," said Aggies guard Adrian Powell. "I'll remember that the rest of my life."

After having the best seat in the house to watch the Cardinals dismantle his team 79-48, Alexander believes the rest of college basketball will soon remember Louisville as the 2013 NCAA champion.

"I think they have, potentially, what it takes to win the national championship," said Alexander, who guided A&T to its first 20-win season (20-17) in 25 years this season.

"Louisville is quick and it's big. They come at you in waves and they don't let up."

Both the Cardinals — 30-5 heading into Saturday's game against the Colorado State-Missouri winner -- and their fans, who turned Kentucky blue Rupp into a sea of red, much as UK fans turned U of L's Yum! Center blue during their championship run last March.

"It was loud," said A&T's Bruce Beckford, who finished with a team-high 12 points. "But that didn't beat us. Their press caused too many turnovers. That's how they won the game."

Indeed, the Cardinals forced 27 turnovers, converting them into 34 points, more than double the 16 points the Aggies scored off Louisville's 16 turnovers.

But it's another statistic that Cards coach Rick Pitino holds dear — deflections — where Louisville set a school record, according to the coach.

"We did a lot of good things tonight," the 12th-year head coach said after watching junior guard Russ Smith toss through a game-high 23 points, sophomore Wayne Blackshear add 12 and Louisville run off with 20 steals and a 31-20 rebounding edge.

"But we set a record for deflections (tipped passes or dribbles) tonight with 67. Our previous record was 58. Our goal tonight was 35, and we got 32 out of our backcourt alone. I've never seen anything like that."

Louisville wasn't the only school having a big time in Rupp on Thursday, of course. Butler outlasted Bucknell 68-56 in the day's opening East Regional game after falling behind 37-31 with 10:17 to go.

At that point, the Bison were on an 11-0 run, the Bulldogs had missed their first 13 3-pointers and Butler coach Brad Stevens readied to make the best use of the next media timeout.

"We were trying to figure out some ways to attack their triangle-and-two [defense]," Stevens later explained. "Our next bucket came on an out-of-bounds play ... then Andrew Smith hit a huge 3. That kind of settled us down."

Over the next 7:17, Butler went on a 22-5 run. Game over.

Yet the game of the day was Marquette's 59-58 thriller over Southern Conference champion Davidson. Having hit one of 11 3s heading into the final 63 seconds -- and trailing the Wildcats by six at that moment -- the Eagles hit all three of their 3s from that point forward to pull within one.

When Davidson turned the ball over with 6.7 seconds to go, Marquette's Vander Blue drove 60 feet to hit a layup with one second to go and give the third-seeded Eagles the win.

Said Davidson coach Bob McKillop afterward: "They made great shots. I'd like to see the replay, but they were just great shots. They had to make great plays to beat us, and I thought they did."

But most of the best players inside Rupp on Thursday appeared to be wearing Louisville red.

Just ask their coach.

"North Carolina [A&T] is much better than their performance," Pitino said. "They just ran into another trapping team that had more length, more size, more quickness."

If they continue to have that advantage going forward, A&T's Alexander may have correctly predicted this year's national champ.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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