ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — For Florida, Louisville and Saint Louis, the home of “the happiest place on earth” was nearly dreadful.
The top-seeded Gators, the fourth-seeded Cardinals and the fifth-seeded Billikens survived significant scares in their opening games of the NCAA tournament Thursday. All three avoided becoming huge upset victims in the second round.
“That’s what makes March Madness so fun,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
Florida, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, sleepwalked early and looked vulnerable late in a 67-55 win over No. 16 seed Albany.
Louisville and Saint Louis needed some late breaks. The Cardinals trailed 58-55 with about 4 minutes remaining before edging Manhattan 71-64, and the Billikens had to overcome a 16-point deficit in the second half before beating North Carolina State 83-80 in overtime.
The near-chaos started with Florida, which got a big boost from its bench in a tight game against what was supposed to be an overmatched opponent.
Sixth man Dorian Finney-Smith scored 16 points, most of them on dunks, and Florida used a second-half surge to beat Albany in the South Region.
Florida’s locker room was a solemn place afterward, with coach Billy Donovan telling players “this isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going.”
The Gators (33-2), who won a school-record 27th consecutive game, vowed to play better against ninth-seeded Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Panthers (26-9) were the only team in Orlando that had an easy time Thursday. Pitt led 13-0 early and 46-18 at the break en route to beating No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48.
Louisville and Saint Louis had to work much harder.
The Cardinals staved off elimination against Manhattan, which showed everyone why Pitino wanted nothing to do with the Jaspers.
Luke Hancock hit two huge 3-pointers in the final 1:19 to help Louisville finally shake free from the tenacious Jaspers.
The Cards were outplayed for most of the second half before coming alive from behind the arc.
Russ Smith, who finished with 18 points, got things going with a game-tying 3 from the wing. Hancock delivered the knockout blows. He stole an inbound pass, got fouled and made both free throws. He hit the first of two daggers with a little more than a minute left and then sank a wide-open look from behind the arc with 28 seconds remaining.
Those shots propelled Louisville (30-5) into the round of 32, where it will face Saint Louis on Saturday in the Midwest Region.
“We needed a couple bounces to go our way,” Hancock said. “Nobody wants to go home on the first day. We’re trying to build a legacy. This is a first step.”
Louisville is trying to become the first school since Florida in 2007 to win back-to-back titles.
While many questioned why the Cardinals were given a No. 4 seed, Pitino criticized the selection committee for pitting his team against 13th-seeded Manhattan, which is coached by Pitino’s former assistant, Steve Masiello.
Masiello served as Pitino’s ball boy with the NBA’s New York Knicks in the 1980s, played for him at Kentucky (1996-1997) and then spent another six years coaching alongside him at Louisville (2005-11). They know each other inside and out, with Masiello molding Manhattan to mirror the Cardinals.
And it showed.
The Jaspers attacked Louisville’s weaknesses and gave the Cards fits on the defensive end. Masiello was at times calling out Louisville’s plays.
“That’s one of the best coaching jobs that I have seen in my 39 years,” Pitino said.
Saint Louis needed five extra minutes to avoid joining fellow No. 5’s Cincinnati and Oklahoma in falling to 12th seeds in the tournament. The Billikens advanced by wiping out a late double-digit deficit.
Rob Loe led the way with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Jordair Jett overcame a slow start to score 18, doing most of his damage while Saint Louis (27-6) was escaping a 59-45 hole over the last five minutes of regulation.
“We didn’t want to end on that kind of note. We didn’t want to bow out of the tournament this early,” Loe said. “We’re here to win, and we’re here to put our mark on basketball.”
With better free throw shooting, Saint Louis would have won without having to work overtime against a team playing its second game in three nights.
NC State beat Xavier in an opening-round game, and fatigue could have been a factor in the Wolfpack collapsing late and missing 17 attempts from the foul line.
“It’s heartbreaking. … Obviously we’re going to always feel like we let one slip away,” NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. “It’s hard to explain. We’re a good foul shooting team.”
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