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March 15, 2012

Cards relieved NCAA drought is over




PORTLAND - As a courtesy, the NCAA distributed copies of the 2012 tournament championship Guide to players participating in the West Regional, so when the Louisville Cardinals walked into their Rose Garden locker room prior to Wednesday's practice session, they found a copy in each of their lockers.

If they had flipped through the glossy magazine, they would have immediately seen the lead article titled, "Sweet Dreams" detailing Morehead State's stunning 62-61 upset of UofL in the first round of last year's West Regional in Denver.

They wouldn't have found it very entertaining reading. Sweet Dreams? More like Sour Nightmare. Not that the Cards needed to be reminded of their back-to-back first-round flops in the NCAA Tournament. Fans, the media and yes, their own coach, Rick Pitino, had covered those flameouts quite extensively.

"Coach P talked about it all the time; he didn't let us forget it," senior guard Chris Smith said. "He'd bring it up in a sarcastic way, like, 'You guys got knocked out in the first round, you're not a good team.' For us, that's motivation because we want to capitalize every time we get a chance to do something."

When was the last time Pitino had mentioned the first-round failures?

"Oh, probably last night," Smith said, laughing.

But the fourth-seeded Cards (27-9) took care of that gaping hole in their recent postseason resume' and silenced the coach and other critics -- temporarily at least -- by defeating No. 13 Davidson (25-8)69-62 in the opening game of the West to snap a three-game losing skid in the NCAAs.

And they're talking like they're not finished yet and have no intention of heading home anytime soon. UofL's next hurdle will be No. 5 New Mexico (28-6), which beat Long Beach State 75-68. They'll meet Saturday, with the winner advancing to the West semifinal next Thursday in Phoenix.

"It's just starting, the work's just starting," senior forward Kyle Kuric said. "We've got a good one under our belt; now we've got to keep winning. The first-round monkey is off our backs, but there's still more pressure moving forward. There's still a lot of basketball to be played, hopefully."

The players admitted to a sense of relief in being able to finally advance and win a tournament game for the first time since routing Arizona 103-64 in the 2009 Midwest Regional semifinals as the No. 1 overall seed before losing to Michigan State 64-52 in the final.

"But we're not going to slack off," Chris Smith said. "We're going to play our ghame and play hard."

Junior point guard Peyton Siva, who had a team-high 17 points, six assists, two steals and two rebounds against Davidson, said much of the pressure stemmed not from the early losses in the past two tournaments but simply from the fact that it was UofL's 2012 debut.

"I think the first game is always the hardest," Siva said. "You want to get those jitters out, you want to play, you want to win. But I think everyb ody came in with a professional attitude and not worried about what's going to happen with this or that. We just focused on Davidson and defense."

UofL held Davidson to its second-lowest point total of the season, the previous low coming in an 84-61 loss at Charlotte in December. The Wildcats shot just 35 percent, including 4-of-19 from three-point range, where their season average was nearly 34 percent.


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