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Former UK head coach Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals took down No. 16-seed North Carolina A&T in front of sizable “home” support at Rupp Arena.
Junior guard Russ Smith led the No. 1 overall seed Cardinals with 23 points and eight steals.
“He was really, really good tonight — mentally as well as physically,” Pitino said. “He truly has arrived into a great basketball player.”
A series of first half dunks helped Louisville shoot 57.4 percent on the game and gave the Cards a 40-19 lead with a little over five minutes to play in the first half.
They didn’t have it all their way, as the 16-seed Aggies began to work their way back into the game.
An alley-oop dunk from freshman forward Bruce Beckford and a three pointer from senior guard Jean Louisme moved the Aggies within 14.
Cards sophomore forward Chane Behanan scored in the closing moments of the half to put the Cards ahead, 47-31, going into the half.
The Aggies refused to roll over as Louisville tried to pull further away after halftime. Beckford dived across the baseline attempting keep a loose ball in bounds.
A four-minute 14-0 run saw the Cards shut down the Aggies offense and move 31 points clear at 68-37 with 10:11 to play.
Pitino was proud of his team’s defensive effort as A&T were kept to a 41.5 shooting.
“We did a lot of great things tonight on the defensive end,” he said. “We set a deflection record … we had 32 from our backcourt, which I’ve never had since I’ve been coaching in 35 years pro or college.
That defensive play kept the Aggies from penetrating the key as the Cards kept A&T at bay and found themselves 33 ahead as the clock ticket past the 5:00 remaining mark.
Pitino emptied his bench in the final minutes as time wound down on the 79-48 win.
His side will return to Rupp Arena on Saturday to play the winner of the nightcap between No. 8-seed Colorado State and No. 9-seed Missouri.
North Carolina A&T head coach Cy Alexander was complimentary of Louisville following the loss, which ended his first season in charge of the Aggies.
“I think they have what it takes to win the national championship,” Alexander said. “It’s been a great ride for my team. To take a program from where we took it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament I feel really blessed. I have to thank this team for buying into what I was trying to sell when I took it over last May.”
Sophomore guard/forward Wayne Blackshear had 12 points and five rebounds for Louisville, who will return to Rupp Arena to play Colorado State at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday in round three.
Sophomore center Gorgui Dieng scored eight points and his seven rounds tied senior forward Stephan Van Tresse for the game-high.
Beckford’s 12 points and four rebounds led North Carolina A&T.