PORTLAND -- Louisville went one-and-done the past two years in the NCAA tournament, and coach Rick Pitino seemed just a bit defensive about it when he met with reporters on Wednesday. Ah, but it became clear after his Cardinals slipped past New Mexico 59-56 and earned a berth in the program's 18th Sweet 16 that he was just striking a pose.
A defensive pose, just like his team struck in victories over Davidson and then the Lobos.
New Mexico shot just 39.7 percent from the field, was 5-of-23 from 3-point range and surrendered 13 turnovers, as Louisville prevailed in a battle of two tough defenses. Louisville shot 45.8 percent from the field, including 7-of-15 from 3-point range.
"We played great defense tonight," Pitino said.
But the story of the game was a pair of second-half runs. The Cardinals jumped ahead 44-29 with an 18-4 run to start the second half, and the game looked like it might become a blowout. But the Lobos countered with a 17-5 run that closed the gap to 49-46 with 6:30 remaining.
That's when things got interesting. Lobos forward Drew Gordon tipped in a rebound to cut the margin to 55-53 with 1:10 left, but the Cardinals answered with a drive and dish from Peyton Siva that ended with a Gorgui Dieng dunk with 35 seconds remaining. (Said Pitino, "That was a great pass."). Siva, who surged late after being quiet most of the game, hit two clutch free throws, which made a 3-pointer from Gordon with 3 seconds left mostly academic.
Louisville, which improved to 29-9, will play the winner of Sunday's Michigan State-Saint Louis in the Sweet 16 in Phoenix.
Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 17 points. He connected on all three of his 3-point attempts, and also grabbed three of the Cardinals' nine steals.
"He always comes up big for us," Pitino said. "When we struggle for points, he's always there."
For New Mexico, the late run surely will engender some wonder at why the second half started so slowly, as a 1-point deficit became 15 points.
"We were just out of rhythm, out of sync offensively, I thought," Lobos coach Steve Alford said. "And then to start the second half, I think they really came at us and got some easy baskets, which we hadn't given up in the first half."
Gordon had 4 points and 5 rebounds at halftime -- and scared New Mexico fans when he fell to the floor with 4:47 before halftime with an apparent knee injury. He finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs.
Pitino was asked in the postgame media session why he looked so relieved, and if it was due to the last two tournament flame-outs. Pitino countered by noting that, in the two years before those flameouts, the Cardinals went to consecutive Elite Eights.
Why was he so giddy then?
"I'm about as happy as I've ever been in this game right now because these guys truly are like my children," he said.