Friday, March 21, 2014

Manhattan Gives Cards All They Can Handle In Narrow 71-64 Defeat

Luke Hancock shines in crunch time once more, draining two threes in 46 seconds to lead reigning national champion Louisville past Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

From the moment Manhattan was unveiled as Louisville's first opponent in the Cardinals' defense of their 2013 national championship, nearly all the questions and headlines were directed toward the second battle between head coaches Rick Pitino and Steve Masiello; the latter of whom having served as a ball boy while his mentor coached the New York Knicks, then ultimately played for him and eventually served as an assistant coach before setting out on his own three years ago.

The actual game between the two teams was an even better and juicier headline, outshining the teacher vs. student hype.

Playing a near-perfect game throughout the night in their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade, Manhattan (25-8) held the lead with two minutes remaining, but were ultimately done in by eight points in 86 seconds from Luke Hancock, who guided No. 4 seed Louisville (30-5) to a 71-64 victory against a resilient and upset-minded Manhattan squad, sending the Cardinals into a Round of 32 matchup against Saint Louis tomorrow in Orlando after coming away with a hard-earned win in Midwest regional play.

"I'm really, really proud," Pitino said on national television immediately after emerging victorious against a Manhattan team that took Louisville to the limit despite its two best players, George Beamon and Rhamel Brown, plagued by foul trouble for most of the second half. "That's why we didn't want to play them. Although I'm elated, it hurt me tonight going against him."

Only two of Pitino's former assistants, Tubby Smith and Mick Cronin, have ever beaten their Hall of Fame tutor, but for a long time, it looked as if Masiello would become the third, using the stifling press defense and frenetic offensive pace he learned as an understudy at Louisville to perfection, never trailing by more than eight points at any juncture in the game.

Down 31-23 late in the first half, the Jaspers' interior duo of Emmy Andujar and Ashton Pankey made their presence felt for the first time during the evening, combining to score the last six Manhattan points of the opening stanza as the MAAC champions went into the locker room trailing 35-29. An Andujar layup early in the second frame gave Manhattan its first lead at 37-35, punctuating an 8-0 run immediately following the intermission. From there, the Jaspers took advantage of a Louisville team that looked nothing like the dominant side it was during their steamrolling of the American Athletic Conference tournament last week, flustering the reigning champions to the point where their offensive rhythm was shaken, keeping Manhattan within a single possession nearly the rest of the way.

A three-point play by Montrezl Harrell gave the Cardinals a 54-50 lead, but the Jaspers; in spite of Beamon and Brown having picked up four fouls each, ripped off an 8-1 run, wresting away a 58-55 lead on Brown's layup with 4:16 remaining. Louisville responded with a three-pointer from an inconsistent Russ Smith to tie the game at 58. The Cards had a chance to take the lead after Brown missed a hook shot in the paint, but Smith's next attempt from beyond the arc was scooped up by Shane Richards, who ultimately fed freshman guard Tyler Wilson for a layup that put Manhattan back in front at 60-58.

Four consecutive Louisville points allowed the lead to change hands again, and the Cardinals gained extra breathing room on Harrell's rejection of a Michael Alvarado shot that would have tied the game at 62. Only a mere 23 seconds later, Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player of last year's NCAA Tournament, stepped up to calmly knock down an uncontested three from the right baseline to stretch the lead to five points. With the score now 65-62 following two free throws from Pankey, whose 16 points led Manhattan, Hancock; much as he had done in the national championship against Michigan last April, connected on another three, this time from the left wing with 27.5 seconds remaining in regulation, essentially icing the game by increasing Louisville's lead to six at 68-62. Manhattan had a chance to pull back within one possession, but were forced to drive the lane inside and take an Andujar layup to cut their deficit to four points, where they would get no closer after Smith; whose 18 points led all scorers, closed out the proceedings on three free throws to provide the final margin of victory.

Smith was one of four Cardinals in double figures, as Hancock also contributed 16 to complement both the 12-point, 13-rebound effort from Harrell and an 11-point outing from point guard Chris Jones. Aside from Pankey, Andujar's 13 points were second-highest for Manhattan, with the Jaspers' senior trio of Alvarado, Brown and Beamon finishing with 10, nine and seven, respectively in a game where the 13th-seeded Jaspers held Louisville to just 36 percent (20-for-55) shooting from the field.

Manhattan's 25 wins signify the second-highest single season total in program history.

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