The University of Louisville, No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and No. 1 team in the nation, leads Morehead State by only two at halftime of their Midwest Regional first-round game in Dayton Arena.
This just hours after Pittsburgh, the No. 1 seed in the East, was very lucky to escape with a 10-point win over East Tennessee State here this afternoon.
First-round games don’t mean much, but I’ll make an easy observation right now — to this point, it doesn’t look like a national championship team has played in this building tonight.
U of L has a recent habit of lackluster first halfs followed by overwhelming second-half runs, and we’ll see if that happens tonight. But forget that for a moment. U of L has put on a clinic of the deficiencies that many say will lead them to an NCAA Tournament exit.
Morehead State has held nearly even with U of L on points in the paint (12-10 U of L) and second-chance points (8-7 U of L).
Most puzzling in this first half is that, with Earl Clark on the bench in foul trouble, Pitino went solely to freshman Jared Swopshire to fill the void. Swopshire has responded with two points and zero rebounds in 12 minutes, while Terrence Jennings sat on the bench next to the coaches until the final seconds of the half.
The Cards jumped out strong, leading 10-4 at the first TV timeout. They had made 4 of 9 shots and forced four quick Morehead turnovers. They extended that lead to 17-7 behind seven early points from Samardo Samuels, then appeared to get careless. Three straight turnovers (Edgar Sosa was stripped, Earl Clark made two careless passes) kept the Cards from extending their lead. Then Morehead State’s Maze Stallworth buried back-to-back threes and the Eagles started to find their confidence.
They surged ahead when Steve Peterson’s tip-in capped an 8-0 run that sent Pitino scrambling to call timeout with a 24-22 deficit.
U of L responded with eight straight points of its own, threes by Sosa and Preston Knowles and a put-back slam by Samuels, but the usually-outstanding U of L defense failed it down the stretch.
Shot out of their standard 2-3 zone, the Cards went man-to-man late in the half and had little success with that, either. The Eagles scored on 9 of their last 13 possessions to be right in the thick of the game at the half.
It was an unusually quiet half for U of L senior Terrence Williams, who had just three points and 3 rebounds in 20 minutes. Clark had four points in eight minutes. Samuels leads the Cards with 9 points and 5 rebounds.
Stallworth made 3 of 5 threes to lead Morehead with 9 points. Kenneth Faried has 7 points and 7 rebounds.
So here it stands. No. 1 seeds are 99-0, and one game after Pittsburgh got a scare, we’ll see if Morehead can make this a March moment to remember.
U of L needs to reestablish the inside game that staked it to an early double-digit lead, and needs to take better care of the ball. Nine first-half turnvers negated a good start for the Cards.
And Morehead, they keep needing to hit big threes, and need to keep the Cards from getting too far in front.
Remember this — the longer this proceeds as a close game, the more pressure mounts on the Cardinals.
Teams are coming out for the second half. Much more to come . . .