SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WAVE) - If someone would have counted the Cards out heading into the NCAA Tournament, he would have been justified in doing so.
One of their leading scorers was dismissed from the team, the offense has struggled all season and some of the North Carolina players accused the Cards of quitting during their matchup in the ACC Tournament.
But the March magic of Rick Pitino has struck again, and the Cards are in their fourth straight Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
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You could feel the magic starting to move late in UofL's opening-round game with UC Irvine. The Anteaters' 7-foot-6 giant, Mamadou N'Diaye, was having his way with the Cards until, all of a sudden, Mangok Mathiang started to force turnovers when Irvine's guards would try to pass N'Diaye the ball.
Then, much-maligned senior Wayne Blackshear drove the lane and somehow muscled in a layup to tie the game with time winding down. The magic continued when point guard Quentin Snider, thrust into a starting role in recent weeks, got fouled chasing down a rebound. The all-time leading scorer in Ballard High School history calmly drained both free throws with less than 10 seconds left in one of the most stressful situations a freshman can be in, the one-and-one.
The Pitino magic didn't stop there. UC Irvine had one last chance to tie, or win the game with a three, but the Cards still had fouls to give. After Snider let some time tick away, he and fellow guard Terry Rozier forced a steal, knocking the ball into Blackshear's hands, and the Cards had accomplished their mission to survive and advance.
To outsiders, it seemed like another close win for the Cardiac Cards, but it brought life into the locker room. A group of kids who lost one of their leaders and were starting to hang their heads were now laughing, joking and looking like they had a renewed enthusiasm. The Pitino March Magic had spread from the court to the locker room.
Even with all of that, most analysts were still picking Northern Iowa to send UofL packing, but these Cards were having none of that. The team rallied together and played arguably its best game of the season. Rozier was unstoppable, Blackshear made the play of the game with a late block, and Montrezl Harrell sealed the game with one of his signature, thunderous dunks.
The Cards are headed to Syracuse for the Sweet 16, hoping the Pitino March Magic can carry them yet again.