LEXINGTON, Ky. — North Carolina A&T needed to play a near-flawless game against NCAA tournament-best Louisville on Thursday night.
Simply put, the Aggies did not.
The Cardinals turned A&T over 14 times in the first half, creating 16 points off those miscues and went up by as many as 20 en route to an easy 79-48 win against the No. 16 Aggies.
But that doesn’t discount the underdog’s play Thursday night. The Aggies shot 46.7 percent from the floor in the first half and forced 16 Louisville turnovers, but they could only muster 17 points in the second half.
The Cardinals (30-5) were too much, though. Veteran play in the backcourt along with competing against an undersized Aggie frontcourt allowed Louisville to win at a Rupp Arena that had been painted red with Louisville fans.
“I think they have what it takes to potentially win the national championship,” A&T coach Cy Alexander said. “I’d like to say somewhere down the road in the next three weeks that we lost to the national champions. So I’m actually pulling for them.”
Alexander cited senior guard Peyton Siva and junior guard Russ Smith as two of his concerns entering the game, and he was proven right. Smith finished with a game-high 23 points and eight steals while Siva had six points, eight assists and four steals.
All told, the Cardinals had 20 steals while A&T (20-17) finished with 27 turnovers.
“We both have the same defensive philosophies as far as pressures and traps and maybe we can implement some of the things that caused us problems next year in the Aggie defensive scheme,” Alexander said.
Louisville hit two-thirds of its shots in the first half, getting 24 points in the paint while going 3-for-7 from 3-point range. But that wasn’t completely unusual for the Cardinals, which shot 70 percent against Pitt in the second half of their Big East conference game.
But allowing such shooting was abnormal for the Aggies, who won their first tournament game in school history in the First Four on Tuesday. A&T held 19 opponents to less than 40 percent this year, going 13-6 in those games. They also ranked 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense, allowing only one team to finish 50 percent or better from the field.
A&T shot a respectable 46.7 percent from the field in the first half, continuing their hot shooting since the start of the MEAC conference tournament. That mark included going 5-for-10 from the 3-point arc, which buoyed the Aggies to a relatively manageable margin compared to most 1 vs. 16 games.
“It was kind of frustrating knowing we were having a great half shooting the ball,” A&T forward Adrian Powell said. “They executed their offense and got the ball in good spots.”
No 16 seed in the history of the NCAA tournament has ever beaten a No. 1, and Alexander knew that would be a tall task coming in.
Siva and Smith combined for five steals in the first half while Louisville coach Rick Pitino had seven of his players post at least five first-half points. Even up by more than 20 early in the second half, the Cardinals continued to press while continuing their exhibition on the offensive end.
A&T cut the deficit to 17 at 54-37 on a dunk by Jean Louisme four minutes into the half. But Louisville then went on a 13-0 run.
Forward Bruce Beckford led the Aggies with 12 points. He was the only Aggie in double digits.