March Madness has officially started for the University of Louisville and its fans are surely pulling at their hair, as the Cardinals opened post season play sluggish, squeaking by a stingy East Carolina squad 61-54 in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament.
"We're real excited about the victory," said head coach Rick Pitino. "We've had to overcome a lot this year and Luke was sick tonight, but every game is playoff time. We turned it over to much tonight, but we played with a lot of heart and guts."
Despite a promising start to open the game, which saw Louisville grab a quick 8-1 lead, the Cardinals struggled from the floor. The Cardinals were paced by Francisco Garcia's 11 points and 3 rebounds, but the 11th-seeded Pirates stayed close throughout the first 20 minutes.
After another Cardinal run, which pushed U of L ahead 17-11, East Carolina once again answered with a run of its own. The Pirates, who have now lost five straight to Louisville, outscored the Cardinals 9-4 to close the half, closing the gap to just 21-20.
The second half continued with much of the same as the two teams began trading baskets, with East Carolina grabbing its largest lead of the game at 33-29 with 13:00 remaining in the game.
Louisville responded, regaining the lead 34-33 when Alhaji Mohammed connected on one of two free throw attempts at the 11:12 mark. After the Pirates had rebuilt their four-point lead at 38-34, U of L claimed the lead again when Garcia connected on a three-pointer, which was followed by a steal and three-pointer by Larry O'Bannon, giving the Cardinals a 42-38 advantage. Two free throws by O'Bannon at the 6:50 media timeout gave Louisville a 48-42 lead.
After trading baskets over the next four minutes, Louisville grabbed a 57-50 lead on a three-pointer by Taquan Dean with 2:17 left in the game. A baseline jumper by Luke Whitehead put Louisville up 59-52 with a minute remaining.
Following a defensive rebound by Kendall Dartez, O'Bannon was fouled and connected on both shot attempts to secure the opening round victory.
Louisville forced 16 turnovers and had 5 blocks, scoring 23 points off turnovers.
"We played great defensively and that's about all you can say," said Garcia.
Francisco Garcia paced the Cardinals with 22 points, while O'Bannon added 11. Kendall Dartez led the team with 10 rebounds.
Louisville will next face Cincinnati in the second round of the C-USA tournament with tipoff set for 7:00 p.m.
"Our guys will be ready to play and it will be a tough physcal game," Pitino said. "They have the hometown advantage but we have a strong contingent here too."