The Cardinals (26-8) move on to the East Region semifinals in Syracuse to meet North Carolina State (22-13) at 4:37 p.m. Friday at the Carrier Dome.
Seconds before Montrezl Harrell pointed to the rim, Terry Rozier lofted a pass toward the basket.
The Louisville big man sprang off the KeyArena floor and rose over Northern Iowa forward Nate Buss to flush an alley-oop dunk that pushed the Cardinals’ lead to double digits and snuffed out the Panthers’ late comeback bid.
The highlight play was the defining moment in Louisville’s 66-53 win in the NCAA tournament round-of-32 game that sent the Cardinals back to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight time, which is the longest streak in the storied history of the program.
“They carried the team on their back that had many problems,” coach Rick Pitino said. “Tonight we played our best game of the season. Defensively we did a lot of good things switching from zone to man, back to zone and back to man.
“Offensively, that’s the best we executed.”
Louisville (26-8) moves on to the East Region semifinals in Syracuse to meet North Carolina State (22-13) at 4:37 p.m. Friday at the Carrier Dome.
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Pitino knows these are the final days for Rozier, a sophomore point guard, and Harrell, a junior forward, who have said they’ll enter the NBA draft this summer.
Before leaving school, the Cardinal stars wanted to make sure they returned to the Sweet 16.
“As a basketball program, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the season,” said Harrell, one of two holdovers from the 2013 national championship team. “We responded in the right way. We came together as a team tonight and we really did the key things that we needed to do on the defensive end to will our team to a victory.”
The Cardinals bewildered Northern Iowa with a suffocating defense and held the Panthers to 39.1 percent shooting (their second-lowest scoring output this season).
It took Louisville about five minutes to decipher the Panthers’ offense, which featured Seth Tuttle. Louisville did a good job limiting the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, who finished with 14 points on 4-for-7 shooting.
“They got some really good, long athletic guys in there,” Tuttle said. “They’re extremely physical.”
But Louisville lost control of perimeter shooters who drained three three-pointers to stake UNI to a 10-5 lead with 15:34 remaining in the first half.
Over the next 8½ minutes, Louisville held Northern Iowa to six points while scoring 17. After Rozier sank two free throws to put the Cardinals on top 22-16 with 7:08 left, they never trailed again.
“We got off to a good start and we found some openings against that zone,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “The start was exactly what we could hope for from a game plan standpoint.”
Louisville led 36-27 at halftime and outscored UNI 30-26 in the second half. The Panthers didn’t go away easily. They cut their deficit to six points (55-49) with a jumper from Buss (11 points) at the 4:28 mark. That’s when Rozier and Harrell took over.
“I told these guys if you put the ball anywhere around the rim that I’m going to catch it no matter what,” said Harrell who finished with 14 points and six rebounds.
After Buss’ jumper, Rozier (25 points) tossed a pass to Harrell for an alley-oop slam. Northern Iowa continued to surge and momentum seemed to swing its way when Rozier and Harrell struck again.
This time Harrell caught Rozier’s pass in traffic and delivered a rim-rattling dunk with 1:25 left that brought many of the soldout 14,901 fans to their feet. He sank the ensuing free throw and the Panthers never threatened again.