By GREG MENGELT
LEXINGTON, Ky. —
As expected, top overall seed Louisville had an easy time with 16-seed North Carolina A&T in its 2013 NCAA tournament opener.
Russ Smith and Peyton Siva made sure of it.
Smith had 23 points, a career-high eight steals and three assists, while Siva finished with six points, a team-best eight assists and four steals as the 30-5 Cardinals ran by the Aggies 79-48 at Rupp Arena on Thursday.
“It was a special night for those two guys,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Russ is a really special player.”
Louisville, which had 19 steals and forced 23 A&T turnovers, will face either eighth-seeded Colorado State or ninth-seeded Missouri in Saturday’s third round at Lexington. Tipoff time has not yet been announced.
“We made a big goal of getting 15 steals in the game,” said Pitino, whose teams are now 43-16 in NCAA tournament games. “The way Peyton and Russ played defense tonight was amazing to me. I thought that was an amazing defensive effort by our backcourt.”
“I think they have what it takes to win the national championship,” A&T coach Cy Alexander said of the second-ranked Cardinals.
Louisville held the Aggies to 41.5 percent from the field and A&T made just 17 field goals on 58 possessions. According to Pitino, the Cardinals had 67 deflections, the most any team in his 35 years as a head coach — in college or the NBA.
“We did a lot of special things defensively,” Pitino said.
“We just tried to continue to pressure them,” Siva said. “[Russ] did a good job pressuring the ball.”
Sophomore Wayne Blackshear contributed with 12 points, seven rebounds and four steals for the Cardinals, who shot 56 percent from the floor as a team, including 27-of-39 from inside the 3-point arc for 69 percent.
Sophomore center Gorgui Dieng, who had eight points and seven boards, got the Cardinals off to a good start with the team’s first four points. A Blackshear hook shot started a 14-2 run that included back-to-back 3-pointers from Luke Hancock and Kevin Ware.
A Blackshear 3 — on an assist from Siva — with 9:56 left made it 25-8 and the rout was clearly under way.
After going without a field goal for 10 minutes and 26 seconds — between their first and second bucket of the contest — the Aggies got 3’s from Adrian Powell and Jean Louisme.
The Cards countered with five steals in six A&T possessions, including back-to-back dunks by sophomore Chane Behanan and went up by as many as 21 points at 38-17 and 40-19.
Some Louisville sloppiness toward the end of the half resulted in some easy A&T buckets and a 12-7 run by the Aggies got them within 47-31 at the break.
Louisville forced 13 first-half turnovers, including nine steals, and allowed the Aggies to get up only 21 shots.
A&T took advantage of some more careless Louisville play to pull within 54-37 after a Louisme layup, but Smith and Siva responded by putting together an 14-0 run, virtually by themselves.
A nifty move by Smith ended a 4-0 Aggie run, then the 6-foot junior’s sixth steal led to his 16th and 17th points on a layup.
“If I didn’t play defense, I wouldn’t get on the court,” Smith said. “That’s something I had to evolve into. Our defense got us to the Final Four last year, so we just have to stay solid.”
Siva followed with four straight points on a spin move in the lane and a layup high off of the glass. The Seattle native then assisted on a Smith’s only 3. Smith got a dunk as the result of another Siva deflection and Louisville led 67-37 with 11:23 remaining.
“Russ and Peyton had so many deflections, it was ridiculous,” said Louisville senior Stephen Van Treese, who had four points and seven boards.
With 10 minutes remaining, Smith capped the run with a free throw. His layup with 7:30 left gave the Cardinals a 72-41 lead and ended the night for the starters.
The Cardinals have won 11 straight games and 14 of their last 15. Freshman Bruce Beckford led the Aggies with 12 points and four rebounds. LaMont Middleton added nine points and four boards. A&T’s season ended with a 20-17 mark. The 20-win season is the Aggies’ first since 1987-88.
“It’s been great,” Beckford said. “It makes us want to come back and do it again.”