Louisville entered its NCAA opening-round contest as a heavy favorite over 15th-seed Jacksonville State, but needed a spark and consistent scoring from senior Mangok Mathiang to eventually pull out a 78-63 victory.
The Midwest Region No. 2 seed struggled early on Friday afternoon against OVC tournament champions, trailing 10-2 after five minutes of action. Following a three-pointer from Deng Adel that narrowed the gap to 12-8, Mathiang converted a three-point play after scoring on a layup that seemed to spark the Cardinals and a career-tying 18-point effort. Two minutes, another three-point play from Mathiang, which was accompanied by his usual emotional burst, put the Cardinals on the cusp of its first lead of the game.
While he has experience of three NCAA tournaments - including a redshirt season during team's 2013 championship run - many on the team are new to the NCAA post season.
"Guys that have played key roles haven't been in that situation before," Mathiang said. "The tournament is a big thing. It's a way different feeling than a normal game and it just kind of got to them for the first five minutes."
As a senior with a wealth of post-season experience, providing an emotional lead has become part of his role with this team.
"I'm playing a different role now," he said. "I'm the emotional leader. I'm the guy that's been here before and I'm the guy that everybody looks at for help when you need it."
Mathiang's impressive play is more a return to form. The Melbourne, Aus., product has battled through a broken foot twice, which caused him to miss most of last season and lingered during the early stages of the current run. However, the Cardinals Hall of Fame head coach believes Mathiang has regained his offensive form.
"Mangok has come a long, long way," U of L head coach Rick Pitino said. "About a month and a half ago, he started coming around being the old Mangok where he drop steps both shoulders, goes up and under, does a lot of really good things."
Mathiang is averaging 14.3 points per game in the team's last four outings, including a pair of 18-point outings. He credits following the instructions from Pitino.
"Coach has made a big point of trying to go inside-out and it's been working out pretty well for me," he said. "A lot of guys that are not expecting me to make a move in the post and going up and scoring."
He finished 8-of-13 from the floor, to go along with five rebounds and two block shots.
Louisville advances to face No. 7 seed Michigan on Sunday.