DES MOINES, Iowa — A bevy of suits and jerseys exploded off Louisville’s bench as coaches and reserves frantically pointed to what Cardinals players on the floor had missed: Minnesota center Daniel Oturu lurking on the left wing.
Louisville center Steven Enoch turned in pursuit but it was too late; all Enoch could do was foul as Oturu caught a pass over the top and flipped in a reverse layup to put the Gophers up seven with two minutes left before halftime in Thursday’s first-round NCAA tournament game.
The chasm only widened as Minnesota continued to get its way around the rim while sinking 11 three-pointers on its way to an 86-76 victory at Wells Fargo Arena.
The Cardinals indeed made waves in their first game of the 2019 NCAA tournament — the first game in the entire round of 64, in fact — but likely not in the way coach Chris Mack anticipated as Louisville made its earliest exit from the tournament since 2011.
The Cards ended their first season under Mack 20-14.
“It’s really a tough feeling, you know, to end your season so quickly in the NCAA tournament,” Mack said. “I am very proud of our group. They exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. It’s sorta hard to see that in the moment, but to get a group that was picked 11th preseason in our conference and to represent our conference in the NCAA tournament, I don’t take that lightly.”
Inconsistency from both teams led to several momentum swings in a relatively even first half. Minnesota, one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams, seemed determined to keep firing from beyond the arc and eventually hit back-to-back threes to take a 21-17 lead, an omen of what was to come.
Enoch and Jordan Nwora combined for 15 of Louisville’s 33 first-half points as the Cardinals went into the break trailing by five points.
Louisville never got any closer as the Gophers exploited the Cards on defensive switches, got to the free-throw line and made the Cards pay for poor closeouts. Louisville showed signs of life and trimmed a 19-point deficit to single digits in the closing minutes, but couldn’t overcome Minnesota’s 50-percent shooting.
“We were 15th in the country in defensive efficiency and we gave up 80-something on defense,” Louisville guard Ryan McMahon said. “That’s not going to win you the game.”
Christen Cunningham scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half to lead Louisville. Enoch followed with 14 points, Darius Perry with 12 and Nwora posted his ninth double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Gabe Kalscheur led Minnesota with 24 points.