It was a struggle on offense, but No. 2 Louisville's defense was too good for Northern Iowa during a 51-46 win Thursday in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas.
Despite shooting just 19 of 62 (30.6 percent) for the game, the Cardinals came away with a win. They also came away with a lot of respect for a talented, veteran-led Northern Iowa team.
"I thought we played very selfish at the offensive end," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Give them a lot of credit. They are a heckuva team."
Pitino later added, "I said it all along that this is a Davidson-type basketball team, and that is a compliment because my respect level for Davidson is off the charts. This is a team that will probably play in the most underrated league in the country this year because Creighton is big-time, Illinois State is big time, Whichita State is big time. They've got a great league, very underrated."
As bad as the Cardinals' offense was, Louisville's defense stifled Northern Iowa, holding the Panthers to just 20 points in the first half and just two points in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
The Cardinals built a 18-point lead by the midpoint of the second half, holding Northern Iowa to under 28 percent shooting for the first 30 minutes of the game.
"We were OK," Pitino said. "We were a little tight tonight. We were worried about failing rather than succeeding. Guys were taking bad shots. We will get that out of our system. I have seen it a lot of times when I have highly raked teams. They get tight because the expectations are so high."
Pitino wasn't pleased after the game, largely because of Northern Iowa's scoring in the final 10 minutes. The Panthers wouldn't be put away easily. Northern Iowa went on a 17-2 run starting just under the 10 minute mark, cutting Louisville's lead to 42-39.
"You know, the great thing about college basketball is that one breakdown, one missed play and a pop-out on your man-to-man defense almost causes a highly ranked team to lose," Pitino said. "One breakdown. If you have one weak link in your fence, everything breaks down. We had a link three times in a row by switching unnecessarily."
UofL junior Russ Smith, the Cardinals' leading scorer, hit a long jumper to briefly stop Northern Iowa's run. The Panthers got an old-fashioned three-point play from Deion Mitchell with 3:24 to go to cut Louisville's lead to 44-42.
A 1-2 trip to the foul line for Chane Behanan put Louisville's lead back to three, but Northern Iowa's Jake Koch hit a pair of free throws at the other end to cut the margin to 45-44.
A bankshot in the post by Gorgui Dieng put Louisville up by three, and Northern Iowa missed a potential game-tying three with 1:20 left. Louisville junior Luke Hancock was fouled on the way to the basket with 54.7 left, and he hit 1-2 from the line to put Louisville up 48-44.
A foul by Behanan sent Koch to the line with 42.7 left, and Koch hit both free throws to cut the margin to 48-46. After a missed jumper by Peyton Siva, Northern Iowa grabbed the rebound, but was tied up. Officials called a jump ball, giving the ball back to Louisville.
Louisville was given the ball under the basket, and Smith scored on the inbounds play. He was fouled on the play and stepped to the line, hitting a free throw to put Louisville up 51-46 with 5.1 seconds left.
Smith stole the Northern Iowa inbounds pass and Louisville closed out the win, surviving to face Missouri in Friday's second round game. Pitino said he is concerned about Missouri's Phil Pressey.
"We'll be playing against a great point guard, one of the premier guards in the country," Pitino said. "Peyton Siva didn't play well tonight, he'll play well tomorrow."
Smith led all scorers with 16 points. He was the only Cardinal in double figures. Siva finished with seven points, one assist and four turnovers.