INDIANAPOLIS — Blame Oregon's poor start for its disappointing finish.
The Ducks missed eight of their first 11 shots and got outscored by Russ Smith through the first 10 minutes Friday night. They came back to make a game of it late, but the Ducks never could overcome that early hole in a 77-69 loss to top-seeded Louisville.
"If it wasn't for the beginning, it would have been a completely different game," Johnathan Loyd said. "We just came out, we weren't ready and we got smacked. If we were playing the way were playing in the second half the whole game, it's a completely different story."
Five Ducks (28-9) scored in double figures, led by E.J. Singler's 15. Oregon is only the second team to be within single digits at the buzzer during Louisville's 13-game winning streak, and the 12th-seeded Ducks handled that nasty press with ease. Their 12 turnovers were the fewest by a Louisville opponent since March 5, and were one less than the Cardinals had.
But the combination of Smith and Kevin Ware was simply too much for the Ducks. Smith matched his career high with 31 points, and Ware made a layup to end Oregon's late rally that pulled the Ducks within 70-64 with 5:12 to play.
"When you let a good team like Louisville be the aggressor," Oregon coach Dana Altman said, "they're tough to beat."
The Cardinals (32-5) were barely tested in either of their first two games in the NCAA tournament, beating North Carolina A&T by 31 and Colorado State by 26. They set an NCAA tournament record with 20 steals against A&T, outrebounded one of the country's best rebounding teams in Colorado State and left both teams with ugly shooting lines.
But Smith's hacking cough from the last few days is making its way around the Louisville team, and it was clear from the start this wasn't going to be another juggernaut performance by the Cardinals. Peyton Siva spent the last 15:19 of the first half on the bench after picking up his second foul, and Louisville wasn't nearly as stingy on defense as it's been.
Not that Oregon could take much advantage of it early, falling behind by 16 before the mid-point of the first half.
"I didn't feel like we put our best foot forward in the first half," Altman said. "I'm disappointed we didn't come out a little bit looser and more prepared, and that's as much my fault as it is the team. We were just stuck in the mud those first 10 minutes."
Early foul trouble didn't help, with Loyd picking up his third before halftime and Dominic Artis and Carlos Emory playing the last six minutes of the half with two. Nor did a slow start by Damyean Dotson, who didn't make a field goal until five minutes were gone in the second half.
But the Ducks aren't a team that gives in. After losing six of their last 11 regular-season games, the Ducks have been on a tear. They won the Pac-12 tournament, then upset Oklahoma State and Saint Louis last weekend.
After Luke Hancock's 3 capped a 12-2 run that put Louisville up 66-48, the Ducks would make six straight field goals. When Dotson knocked down a jumper with 5:12 remaining, it got Oregon within six, the closest it had been since early in the first half.
Closest anyone had been to Louisville since the Big East tournament, actually.
"We've been in that position before this year," Singler said.
But part of what makes the Cardinals so imposing is their maturity and their options, which seem endless. Instead of panicking, the Cardinals regrouped and regained control, and the Ducks never threatened again.
"I told our guys, `We don't have it tonight. It's obvious,'" coach Rick Pitino said. "We're winning with offense and that's great, but we've got to start digging in and getting stops. We did it at the end."
Ware brought a halt to the Oregon run with his layup and then came a monstrous dunk by Chane Behanan. Smith made a pair of free throws, and the only question was whether the Ducks could get back within single digits before the buzzer.
Ware finished with 11, topping his previous career best by one, and Gorgui Dieng had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
"We've been a great defensive team – not a good one, a great one – all season," Pitino said. "Tonight, their quickness was so good, all it did was wear us out defensively. But we had Russ Smith and Kevin really bail us out of some situations that could have gone either way."