PORTLAND, Ore. — Louisville's late regular-season slide has turned into a postseason surge.
Russ Smith had 17 points as Louisville held off a late New Mexico rally 59-56 Saturday night for its sixth consecutive win, advancing to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2009.
The Cardinals lost three of their last four regular season games, then swept through the Big East Tournament with four straight wins. The No. 4 seed then beat Davidson in their opening tournament game before facing the fifth-seeded Lobos.
Coach Rick Pitino said the Cardinals' Big East run was just what they needed.
"I'm really delighted, because I thought this team had a lot of limitations," he said. "I wanted to win that Big East tournament in the worst way because I knew their confidence would grow."
They'll need that boost next week when then face the winner of Sunday's Saint Louis-Michigan State game at the West Regional semifinal in Columbus.
"It just feels good. Everybody really battled today," said Louisville guard Peyton Siva, who had a big group of family and friends from his hometown Seattle at the game. "It was a tough game, feels like a Big East game out there and man, they came out and played hard."
Held scoreless in the first half, Siva finished with six points and five assists. Kyle Kuric and Chane Behanan each added 10 points.
Trailing 53-46, New Mexico's Drew Gordon hit a pair of free throws, and Demetrius Walker made a 3-pointer to pull to within 53-51 with 1:36 left. Smith made a pair of free throws for Louisville (28-9), but Gordon answered with a tip-in.
Gorgui Dieng dunked with 32.3 seconds left, and Siva added free throws to make it 59-53. Gordon dropped a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left, but it was too late for the Lobos (28-7), who have never been to the round of 16.
"I told the guys, you give us effort and defend, that's all I ever ask," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "If you have a night where you don't make shots, you've got to hope your defense and effort is enough. It wasn't quite enough tonight."
Gordon led the Lobos with 21 points and 14 rebounds, despite going down with what looked like a scary left knee injury late in the first half. He came back a short time later with the knee wrapped.
"Felt like my life flashed before my eyes. I went up to try and block a shot, and AJ (Hardeman) was trying to take a charge," Gordon said. "So when I was going up he was going down and forced me back down and fell against my leg in an awkward position. I felt a couple of pops. But the doc checked me out and said I was OK."
But that wasn't enough to get past the Cardinals.
Smith made consecutive 3-pointers to put the Cardinals up 24-21 with 5:27 left in the first half. After A.J. Hardeman's layup narrowed it for New Mexico, Wayne Blackshear hit a jumper for Louisville.
Kendall Williams made a jumper for the Lobos as time wound down, and the Cardinals held a slim 26-25 lead at halftime.
Siva came alive with about five minutes into the second half, when he hit a layup and then made a stunning behind-the-back pass on the fast break to Kuric for the layup and a 38-29 lead. Smith padded the lead with a quick steal and a layup, and Chris Smith knocked down a 3-pointer to complete a 13-2 run and put the Cardinals up 44-29.
The Lobos answered with an 8-0 run to come within 44-37. Smith's 3-pointer for Louisville briefly interrupted the rally, but Williams made a 3 and Gordon had a reverse slam dunk that drew gasps from the crowd to squeeze it to 49-44 with 6:32 left.
Gordon made a pair of free throws to get the Lobos within three points. Behanan missed a pair for the Cardinals, but then Siva made a driving layup with 2:21 left to stretch the lead back to 53-46.
In a rollercoaster season, Louisville rose to No. 4 in the rankings in December before tumbling with five losses in seven games. The Cardinals also lost three of four heading into the conference tournament. But it appeared that something clicked when Louisville won four games in four nights, capped by a 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the Big East championship game.
And Louisville's eager to do whatever it takes to keep the momentum rolling.
"I just stay on the bench and look and see what we need," Smith said. "If we need defensive energy I'll try and do that. If we need points I'll try and do that. I just try and do what I feel the team needs at the time, and hopefully it'll just work out."